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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Jeremy Bentham's Corpse Auto Icon

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the great English polymath of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was rigorous in his pursuit of scientific knowledge right up until his death.

The philosopher, jurist and social reformer is known for his theory of what came to be known as utilitarianism summed up in the phrase: "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" and for his invention of the panoptican - a new design for observation in prisons.

A child prodigy, Bentham was educated at Westminster School and Oxford University and was instrumental in the founding of University College London (UCL).

Well ahead of his time, Bentham advocated freedom of expression, equality for women, animal rights and the abolition of capital punishment and slavery. Bentham was to influence and inspire such men as James Mill, his son John Stuart Mill, the author of On Liberty and the proto-socialist reformer Robert Owen.

In his will Bentham left precise instructions on what was to happen to his body after his death. His corpse was to be dissected for an anatomy lecture open to the general public and his inner organs removed. The head and skeleton were to be preserved and dressed in his clothes in a wooden cabinet he designed called the "Auto-icon."

University College London acquired the "Auto-icon" in 1850 and it is on public display in the South Cloisters in the main building of the college. You will need to ask the security guard on the main gate whether you can enter and sign in and out. Around 60,000 manuscripts written by Jeremy Bentham were also given to UCL.

The Auto-icon now has a wax head, while the real head, badly damaged in the embalming process, is stored separately.

Other attractions in London close to UCL by tube, bus or on foot include the British Museum, the Post Office Tower, Russell Square, St Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben or farther afield Buckingham Palace.

Take an underground train to any of Euston Square, Euston, Warren Street, Russell Square or Goodge Street tube stations.

UCL Bloomsbury Campus
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT


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