186-Year-Old Skeleton of Philosopher Jeremy Bentham Checked for Bugs, Travels Headless to New York
Jeremy Bentham, an English philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism, passed away in 1832. His skeleton, fleshed out with wax and stuffing, traveled to New York City for display this week.
An atheist who prioritized the "greatest good for the greatest number," Bentham dedicated his body to science after his death. In an era of grave-robbing for medical dissection, he willed that his corpse would be dissected -- and then stuffed to be preserved for future generations. His skeleton has been on display at University College London (UCL) ever since, but now he has taken a trip across the pond to the Met Breuer museum in New York.
Bentham always wanted to visit America, but he never got the opportunity to do so in life. Before the journey, however, his artificial body had to be disrobed and restructured to make sure he was not infested with bugs.
"The first thing we had to do was to discover whether he was suffering from any infestations," Jayne Dunn, head of Collections Management at UCL, told Britain's The Telegraph. "We don't want to send an object to another museum and infect their collection with pests. If he had been we would have had to fumigate him."
Why is the bug test necessary? "He is wearing the original underwear — which has not got infested — and two sets of stockings, one over the other," Dunn explained. "Carpet beetles love wool but they are less keen on linen which is why we think the vest, underpants and stockings have survived."
Padded with wood shavings and held in place by a large stocking over the body, the philosopher's body is not unlike an old couch which needed to be upholstered.
"When you have an old sofa everything settles into the bottom and you have to plump up the cushions," Subhadra Das, a UCL curator, told The Telegraph. "Well, the same thing happened with Bentham. We have not added anything but reapportioned where it is so he looks a lot slimmer."
In his will, Bentham instructed his friend Southwood Smith to place his skeleton on display. He asked that his remains "be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought."
Every part of the fabricated body is connected to the real skeleton — except the head. That separate artifact is on temporary display at UCL. After Bentham's death, Smith preserved the head using techniques adopted from the Māori in New Zealand, adding a bit of sulphuric acid. This experiment largely failed, leaving the philosopher's face red, and the skin taut and leathery.