Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Jeremy Bentham: Dead but not gone

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

Jeremy Bentham’s “auto-icon” (skeleton) at University College London. Crop of photo by Phillip Stevens on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

“How little service soever it may have been in my power to render to mankind during my lifetime, I shall at least be not altogether useless after my death.”1
– Jeremy Bentham

The English polymath Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) was a philosopher, jurist, and social reformer. His collected works started to be assembled in 2010 and so far include thirty-eight volumes. When complete, his writing will fill eighty volumes. He is best known for the social-governmental concept of utilitarianism, which states that the best political decisions produce the most happiness for the greatest number of people. He advocated for women’s rights, obtainable divorces, separation of church and state, lending money for interest, humane treatment of animals, and the right to donate one’s body to science. He favored science, progress, and rational thinking, while opposing slavery, capital punishment, physical punishment of children, imperialism, and the criminalization of homosexuality. He felt that religion’s influence on society was too strong. In 1811, he offered to write a complete legal code for the US.2,3

Under British law, the dissection of cadavers—which were needed to train medical students and surgeons—could only be performed on executed criminals. This resulted in an inadequate supply of bodies for teaching. Doctors paid for cadavers that were sold to them by grave robbers. Bentham’s dissatisfaction with the law against dissection led him to include in his will a demand for a public dissection of his body. It was done two days after his death by his friend and student, Dr. Southwood Smith, at the Webb St. School of Anatomy in London. A year before his death, Bentham had written an essay, “Auto-Icon: or farther uses of the dead to the living,” in which he stated that preserved bodies could be used as statues, stage props, or building material.4,5

According to his wishes, Bentham’s cadaver was reduced to a skeleton, the skeleton was placed in one of his suits, and the suit filled out with hay and straw. The preparation of the skeleton, unfortunately, deformed Bentham’s head, and Smith had a sculptor create an excellent likeness in wax. This skeleton-in-a-stuffed-suit was placed on Bentham’s favorite chair. Lavender and naphthalene were added to the stuffing to protect against insects. This auto-icon, as Bentham called a cadaver so treated, stayed in Dr. Smith’s office until 1850, at which time Smith donated it to the Anatomical Museum of the University College of London. It was moved to the English countryside during World War Two to protect it from German bombs. It is now back at the University College in its glass and mahogany case at the entrance to the student center.6,7,8

One month after Bentham’s death and dissection, the Anatomy Act was passed. This law allowed those with the lawful custody of a dead body to donate it to be dissected. It included, of course, the right to donate one’s own cadaver.9

Was Bentham’s request more than just a “strange joke from a strange man”?10 Several motives have been suggested: egotism, a practical joke in bad taste, or a final swipe at religion. Bentham liked to ridicule the doctrines of Christianity. Koh, a Bentham scholar, wondered if he was mocking the idea of immortality.11

The answer is uncognosible, which is one of the over 200 words Jeremy Bentham coined.12


  1. Ruth Richardson and Brian Hurwitz. “Jeremy Bentham’s self-image: An exemplary bequest for dissection.” British Medical Journal, 295, July 18, 1987.
  2. Bess Lovejoy. Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Richmond (UK): Duckworth Books Ltd, 2021.
  3. “Jeremy Bentham.” Wikipedia.
  4. Tsin Yen Koh. “Bad jokes and good taste: An essay on Bentham’s ‘auto-icon.’” Revue d’études benthamiennes, 20, 2021. https://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/9139.
  5. Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces.
  6. Richardson and Hurwitz, “Jeremy Bentham’s self-image.”
  7. Koh, “Bad jokes.”
  8. Lovejoy, Rest in Pieces.
  9. Richardson and Hurwitz, “Jeremy Bentham’s self-image.”
  10. Colin Tyler. “Jeremy Bentham on open government and privacy.” Journal of Information Ethics, 26(1), Spring 2017.
  11. Koh, “Bad jokes.”
  12. Bentham Project, University College London, “Neologisms of Jeremy Bentham.” https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bentham-project/neologisms-jeremy-bentham.

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Winter 2024



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