Capital punishment and anatomy: history and ethics of an ongoing association

Clin Anat. 2008 Jan;21(1):5-14. doi: 10.1002/ca.20571.


Anatomical science has used the bodies of the executed for dissection over many centuries. As anatomy has developed into a vehicle of not only scientific but also moral and ethical education, it is important to consider the source of human bodies for dissection and the manner of their acquisition. From the thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, the bodies of the executed were the only legal source of bodies for dissection. Starting in the late seventeenth century, the bodies of unclaimed persons were also made legally available. With the developing movement to abolish the death penalty in many countries around the world and with the renunciation of the use of the bodies of the executed by the British legal system in the nineteenth century, two different practices have developed in that there are Anatomy Departments who use the bodies of the executed for dissection or research and those who do not. The history of the use of bodies of the executed in German Anatomy Departments during the National Socialist regime is an example for the insidious slide from an ethical use of human bodies in dissection to an unethical one. There are cases of contemporary use of unclaimed or donated bodies of the executed, but they are rarely well documented. The intention of this review is to initiate an ethical discourse about the use of the bodies of the executed in contemporary anatomy.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anatomy / education*
  • Anatomy / ethics
  • Anatomy / history
  • Cadaver*
  • Capital Punishment* / history
  • Capital Punishment* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • China
  • Dissection / ethics
  • Dissection / history
  • Education, Medical / history
  • Education, Medical / trends
  • Ethics, Medical / history*
  • Germany
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • National Socialism / history