Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Head Goes on Display for the First Time in Decades

By on October 3, 2017

The head of Jeremy Bentham is being featured in a University College London exhibit, and scientists are using the opportunity to test it for autism.

The Telegraph reports that Jeremy Bentham’s mummified head has gone on public display at the University College London for the first in decades as part of an exhibit called What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL.

Bentham died in 1832. Following his instructions, his body was preserved and displayed in a practice he called “auto-iconisation.” Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, a protégé of Bentham, carried out the preservation. To mummify the head, he used an experimental technique based on Maori practices, in which he placed Bentham’s head in an air pump suspended over sulphuric acid. The head was successfully dehydrated, but the process left it looking rather macabre.

Smith brought in French artist Jacques Talrich, who produced anatomical models, to create the wax replacement for Bentham’s ruined head that can be seen in the auto-icon case today.

The body and head of Jeremy Bentham on display

Bentham’s real head was still kept in the case, positioned at his feet, for a long time. After becoming the target of repeated student pranks at UCL, however, the head was finally removed. It is now kept in a safe, examined once a year to make sure the skin and hair are still in place.

While the head is out of storage for the exhibit, researchers are using the opportunity to extract DNA so they can test a theory put forth in 2006 that Bentham’s unique character was the result of Asperger’s syndrome.

The Telegraph writes:

Bentham was a leading philosopher and social thinker of the 18th and early 19th century, establishing himself as a leading theorist in social and economic reform.

He was pivotal in the establishment of Britain’s first police force, the Thames River Police in 1800 which was the precedent for Robert Peel’s reforms 30 years later. He also argued for the rights of women, and for homosexuality to be legalised.

However he was notably eccentric, reclusive and difficult to get hold of. He called his walking stick Dapple, his teapot Dickey, and kept an elderly cat named The Reverend Sir John Langbourne.

Jeremy Bentham auto-icon

What Does It Mean To Be Human? runs from October 2 to March 1 at UCL’s Octagon Gallery. It is free and open daily. More info right here.

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