Body Snatchers and Grave Robbers

Execution of the notorious William Burke, the murderer who supplied Dr Knox with subjects. Credit: Wellcome Collection,


The history of body snatching was designed to introduce students to the fascinating history of bodies and the treatment of corpses.  The idea was to encourage the students to consider how different the way that bodies are dealt with today is compared to over a 100 years ago.  The body snatching lesson was written by Dr Laura Kelly from the University of Strathclyde and delivered in schools by Dr Kelly, Dr Newlands and Simon Walker on separate occasions.

The lesson was written to introduce new narratives and concepts and encourage the pupils to question why bodies were so important to doctors within the evolution of medical practice.   The pupils were introduced to new terms such as ‘Resurrectionists’ and ‘Anatomy’ and used primary sources such as contextual images and individual accounts as a way to help the pupils engage with these new concepts.
Engagement and Practice:

The lesson was equally divided between presentation style teaching, group work and a class discussion using worksheets (attached to this article). This was designed to include the pupils as much as possible, through direct group work, question and answer / fill in the blanks sessions and summary sections.

Body Snatching: Lesson Presentation
Format – 

  • Introduction of subject and staff
  • Open class questions ‘Why did Doctors need bodies / What was a Resurrectionist and what was his role in the progression of medicine/discussion of crime and punishment in history’
  • Short teaching section – ‘How to become a doctor’ – a class-wide question section discussing how to learn to be a doctor today followed by an explanation of ‘Anatomy, a medical study from 1750 onwards and the role of corpses .’
  • Class activity – ‘Reminiscences of a medical student’ students had to read the account and then answer the questions on the slide in groups
  • Teaching plus open questions on the Commodification of bodies and crime/punishment
  • Group worksheet exercise: ‘Stop the body snatchers’ – pupils to choose how to protect a corpse from grave robbers and explain why they chose that method.
  • Group discussion – Review of the methods
  • Short Teaching Section – ‘the Tale of Bourke and Hare’
  • Sum up section and conclusion

Exercise and Worksheets: 

Two exercises were created for this lesson:

1. An extended narrative of a medical student from 1879 which the students had to read and draw information from

Medical Student Account

2. A list of methods to ‘stop grave robbers’ which asked which ones the pupils would have used and asks them to think analytically about the effectiveness of each.

Stop the Bodysnatchers Exercise

Personal Account: 

This lesson has been taught by several people including Simon Walker, Dr Emma Newlands and Dr Laura Kelly.  It is from Dr Kelly that the below account is drawn.

Key aims in designing/presenting that topic?

My key aim in designing the Bodysnatching class was to introduce students to the dark history of body snatching in the nineteenth century, with focus on the trial of Burke and Hare.

How did you adapt your lesson/teaching style to fit with school pupils?

The body-snatching lesson started by asking the students how a person becomes a doctor and then asking them what subjects are necessary for medical students, thereby introducing the importance of anatomy in the present day medical curriculum before going on to introduce the history of body-snatching. The body-snatching lesson involved two activities – the first, ‘Stop the bodysnatchers’, was an activity sheet where students were told to imagine that it was 1832 and given options of ways that they could prevent bodysnatchers from stealing a corpse. Some discussion followed this activity. The next activity ‘The business of bodies’ involved students matching the price of bodies to three deceased persons, the idea being to get them to think about what made a body particularly valuable or worthy of study in the nineteenth century.

What did you enjoy most about the experience?

I really enjoyed the opportunity of engaging with children and getting them interested in the history of medicine. It was a unique opportunity which I had not had before and allowed me to carefully consider the most appropriate ways of disseminating historical research to a younger audience. I very much enjoyed the whole experience and it was also fun to hear some of the answers they had to the questions I asked and seeing their imaginations at play in the exercises provided.

What challenges did you face in creating/presenting the lesson?

My main challenge in both lessons was thinking about how best to present the information in the Powerpoint slides, and thinking about exercises that would be suitable but also aimed at the right level, i.e. not too challenging and not too easy. Also, it was also challenging to keep students interested and engaged, however, it was great to have the support of colleagues who helped out with the lesson.

What would you change for the next time?

Next time, I would perhaps think more about the activities I provide in each class and their suitability and whether there might be other ways of disseminating the information, e.g. through film clip sources, or other activities.

Notes from Simon Walker:  Dr Kelly makes a good point here, particularly as the first exercise was sometimes considered a little difficult simply by the sheer amount of text the pupils had to work through in a limited time.  Further versions of this lesson will include a shorter source and/or a different medium for the pupils to engage with.

Why is teaching school children this topic important?

 Medicine informs so many aspects of human experience and as academics, our knowledge of the history of medicine should not be confined to the academy but should be disseminated more broadly to wider audiences. It’s also lots of fun and very rewarding to help imbue younger generations with the sense of wonder we have for our research. Additionally, I think an underlying theme of my lesson was the importance of respect for other humans.

Please feel free to access the attached resources for this lesson.  All of the images and information is strictly provided for a non-commercial / education purposes.