Troubling questions over the treatment of dead

Órla O’Donovan, a lecturer in the School of Applied Social Studies in UCC, says universities need to analyse their own history in wake of the Mother and Baby Home investigations
Troubling questions over the treatment of dead

UNSETTLING: Mother and Baby Home inquiries are unearthing troubling questionsfor universities

THE spectre of the dead infants once confined in so-called Mother and Baby Homes is raising haunting questions for Irish universities.

An entire chapter of the recently published fifth interim report of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation is devoted to the burial of ‘anatomical subjects’, infant dead bodies transferred to universities for dissection and anatomical study.

Even though they are dead, these ‘anatomical subjects’ are giving rise to troubling questions about the enlisting of the socially dead who had lives and deaths that did not matter in the production and dissemination of medical knowledge. These questions trouble conventional histories of medicine and universities that tell stories of care, benevolence, progress and enlightenment. They also force us to think about the bodies of knowledge we have inherited that were produced through the bodies of the both socially and biologically dead.

In the early 1950s, 1% of the population of Ireland endured a social death through confinement in asylums, industrial schools, laundries and other institutions. But beginning in 1993 with public disquiet about the exhumation of the remains of women who had been incarcerated in one of Dublin’s Magdalene Laundries, these dead bodies have been demanding public attention. Catherine Corless’s unsettling historical research into the dead from the ‘Home’ at Tuam has resulted in ‘Tuam’ becoming a byword for the uncared-for dead in the sites of many other former Mother and Baby Homes that are only now beginning to be investigated.

Examination of the burial arrangements for those who died in these institutions has proven considerably more difficult and demanding than originally anticipated. The repeated extensions of the time-frame for the final report of the Commission of Investigation is evidence of the refusal of the confined dead to move from being centre stage in Irish public life.

As noted in the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation interim report, between 1920 and 1977, the bodies of more than 950 children (most of whom were identified as ‘illegitimate’) who died in these homes and other such institutions were sent to three Dublin medical schools. These children who were used as anatomical subjects ranged in age at the time of death from ten minutes to 15 years old.

Additionally, it seems many stillborn infants were preserved as medical specimens for display in medical schools. Investigation into the records from the medical school in University College Galway revealed evidence that between 1949 and 1964, the head of the School of Medicine and Anatomy Department paid ten shillings for each of the 35 infant anatomical subjects he acquired in that period. These were infants who died in the Central Hospital / Regional Hospital Galway, where sick children in the Tuam Home were routinely sent for medical treatment.

The Commission did not find any evidence that children were used for anatomical studies in UCC, but extensive archival evidence tells us the dead bodies of people confined in asylums, work houses and other institutions feature prominently in its medical school’s history.

A contemporary ethical quandary facing many medical schools in Ireland, and internationally, is what should be done with the many ‘medical specimens’ once displayed in their now outmoded anatomy museums. When first established, in many of these universities an anatomy museum was regarded as every bit as essential to university infrastructure as a library. Irish universities still have substantial remnants of these museums, populated mainly by the dead, confined, and outcast poor, and obtained without consent. Among these collections are colonial trophies, such as an ‘Inka head’ that features in the UCC archives and was included in the animal or natural history museum. The 2005 Madden Report on Post Mortem Practice and Procedures, published in the aftermath of the 1990s organ retentions scandal and the recommendations of which are only now being brought into law, recommended that specimens retained in medical museums for teaching purposes should be maintained as a ‘valuable educational resource’. This approach to the dead, possibly transferred to universities from Mother and Baby Homes and transformed in to anatomical subjects, is now open to question.

Crucially, the troubling questions raised by the dead from Mother and Baby Homes are not confined to anatomical practices of the past. While most of the bodies used in medical education today are from Irish donors, the medical schools in some Irish universities now purchase and import ‘fresh frozen’ human body parts from the U.S. In some U.S states it is permissible for unclaimed dead bodies to be used in anatomy education. Is it possible that the bodies of the non-consenting confined poor continue to be amongst the anatomical subjects in our universities?

A UCC-based study called Living Well with the Dead in Contemporary Ireland (see is attempting to respond to the fundamental questions being raised by Ireland’s confined dead.

Our use of the phrase ‘living well with the dead’ alludes to French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s ethical challenge to ‘learn to live with ghosts’, based on an understanding of justice that extends beyond responsibility to the living present, to those who are not yet born or are already dead.

On May 10, it will host a Thinkery on Living Well with the Confined Dead, a forum for the exploration of new ways of thinking and asking new questions, rather than refining existing answers, about this issue. The event will feature contributions from members of Justice for Magdalenes and the Tuam Mother and Baby Home Oral History Project.

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