On December 5, 1831, the notorious London "resurrection men" John Bishop and Thomas Williams were executed for the murder of an itinerant fourteen-year-old (known only as the "Italian Boy"), whose corpse they had then attempted to sell to the anatomical demonstrator at King's College. Five days later, the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons-whose members included such luminaries as Astley Cooper, William Lawrence, Benjamin Collins Brodie, Charles Bell and Benjamin Travers-sent the present letter to Viscount Melbourne, the British Home Secretary, urging reform of the antiquated British laws governing procurement and possession of cadavers for dissection in medical schools.
Since the mid-eighteenth century, obtaining cadavers for teaching purposes had been regulated in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752, which stipulated that only the corpses of executed criminals could be used for dissection. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, improvements in medical science, coupled with a substantial drop in the number of executions, caused the demand for cadavers to far outstrip the legal supply. This situation was ripe for exploitation by "resurrection men," criminals who robbed the graves of the newly deceased and sold their corpses to teachers of anatomy, who of necessity turned a blind eye to the illegality of these transactions. Some grave-robbers even resorted to murder, including the infamous William Burke, who in 1828 was tried and executed in Edinburgh for the murders of over a dozen victims whose corpses he and his partner Hare sold to an anatomical demonstrator connected to Edinburgh University.
Calls for reform of the 1752 Murder Act began to arise as early as 1810, and in 1828, the year of Burke's execution, Parliament appointed a select committee to "enquire into the manner of obtaining subjects for dissection by schools of Anatomy and the State of law affecting persons employed in obtaining and dissecting bodies." The horrific nature of the crimes committed by Burke, Bishop and Williams aroused public sentiment in favor of reform, a sentiment echoed in the present letter from the RCS Council, which spells out in detail the untenable position of students and teachers of anatomy under the then-current law. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, granting licenses to teachers of anatomy and giving physicians, surgeons and medical students legal access to corpses unclaimed after death. Digital facsimile of the reproduction of the "letter" in The Lancet from Google Books at this link