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Philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Mummified Head Is Back on Display

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J. Posselwhite/Getty Images

Jeremy Bentham had a problem. He may have been dead, but that wasn't it—the iconoclastic philosopher left strict instructions about what to do with his body after his demise in 1832, and they didn't turn out as planned. After a public dissection by his friend Thomas Southwood Smith, and the transformation of his corpse into a skeleton, Bentham's head was supposed to be dried out with an air pump and some sulfuric acid "in the style of the New Zealanders." Sadly, the sulfuric acid worked a little too well, and with the philosopher's head looking like a theatrical prop, Smith chose to replace it with a life-like wax replica featuring some of Bentham's own hair.

Bentham's body, which he called his "auto-icon," spent several years on display in Smith's office before going to the University College London (UCL), of which the philosopher was an early supporter. While his real head once rested inside the cabinet, it was moved into storage following World War II. (Rumors that students at a rival school once stole it for soccer practice are unfounded.) Now, according to The Telegraph, for the first time in decades, Bentham's head is back on display at UCL, as part of an exhibit on how "science mediates the dilemma of death."

A black-and-white photograph of Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon, with his mummified head
Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon, with his mummified head between his feet, circa 1950
Hulton Archive/Getty

"What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL" includes several drafts of Bentham's will, showing how his views about the disposal of his own body changed over time, as well as a draft version of important legislation meant to address the lack of corpses then available for medical dissection in Britain (part of what motivated Bentham's own public dissection) and other materials. The exhibit also includes the head of archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who also left his remains to science.

According to The Telegraph, scientists have recently taken DNA samples from Bentham's head that will be used to study whether the philosopher might be posthumously diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a theory first put forward by researchers Philip Lucas and Anne Sheeran in 2006 [PDF]. Diagnosing famous figures from the past, particularly with psychological ailments, is fraught with practical and ethical difficulties—although few would debate that Bentham was, by the standards of his own age and ours, remarkable. Aside from leaving explicit instructions about turning his own skeleton into a piece of educational art, Bentham was known for championing ideas (like women's rights and the legalization of homosexuality) that were well ahead of his time. He also, as The Telegraph notes, "called his walking stick Dapple, his teapot Dickey, and kept an elderly cat named The Reverend Sir John Langbourne."

"What Does It Mean to be Human?" runs at the Octagon Gallery in the Wilkins Building of UCL until February 28, 2018. Stateside Bentham fans will be thrilled to know that his auto-icon will then travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it will be part of an exhibition on the human body.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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