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The mummified head of Jeremy Bentham

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

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.

The Strange Case of Jeremy Bentham

Human taxidermy: The preserved body of philosopher Jeremy Bentham

Upon his request in a detailed letter attached to his will, the body of British philosopher Jeremy Bentham was dissected and preserved after his death in 1832 by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith. The head and skeleton were placed in a wooden cabinet Bentham called the “Auto-icon.” The skeleton was dressed in Bentham’s clothes and padded with hay.

The Auto-icon was intended to incorporate Bentham’s actual head, mummified to resemble its appearance in life. However, Southwood Smith’s experimental efforts at mummification, based on practices of the indigenous people of New Zealand, left the head looking distastefully macabre with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull. The Auto-icon was therefore given a wax head fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

The real head was displayed for many years, but was locked away after it became the target of repeated student pranks at the University College London, who acquired the Auto-icon in 1850.

Jeremy Bentham Auto-icon on display in Britain's University College London

A 360-degree ‘Virtual Auto-Icon’ is available at the UCL Bentham Project website.