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The Mummies of London

Well I was well aware of people talking about British eccentricity, I was unprepared for the fact that one of their most famous philosophers and reformers would wind up on display in a glass box for all to see.

semi-overcast 15 °C

University College London was founded in 1826. Prior to its founding, the only other two universities in England were Oxford and Cambridge, which only allowed men who were members of the Church of England. UCL was formed with a goal of being non-discriminatory and open to all. It was the first university in England to admit students of any race, class or religion, and the first to welcome women on equal terms with men. Even today, UCL is ranked 22nd in the world by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s annual Academic Ranking of World Universities.



There main building, above, was designed by famed architect William Wilkins, who later went on to design the National Gallery here in London as well. As you can tell by the columns, it is not surprising to learn that he toured Greece as a young man and then later became one of the most important figures in the English Greek Revival of the early 1800s.



Blah, blah, blah. Who cares? I am much too old to care about university rankings, a little old to be wandering aimless around University campuses with all the young co-eds and don't really care much for Doric, Ionic or Corinthian columns.

No, there is only one reason I went to UCL, and that was to see the DEAD GUY IN A BOX!


Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher and jurist (legal dude, in plain English) who lived from 1748 until 1832. He was a well known law reformer who helped fashion the law codes of a number of countries, and pushed all his life to create a code of laws that delivered on his philosophy of delivering "the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

He is often credited with creating a design for the Panopticon, a prison which allowed the guards, positioned in the middle of the jail in an circular observation room, to see all the cells, which radiated out as spokes from the central hub, though it was an idea that he had seen when visiting his brother in Russia.

He is, however, the creator of the word international. It's hard for me to believe that no one had come up with a word to explain that concept previously, but in 1780 in his work "An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation," he wrote of international jurisprudence. A footnote on the word international said the following:

The word international, it must be acknowledged, is a new one; though, it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible.

I must admit, that last night I was lying in bed trying to come up with new words myself by taking prefixes and sticking them with existing words. The best I could come up with is georecognition, which is the state of being globally recognizable. For example, "Sure, people in North America know Jessica Simpson, but Britney Spears, she's got georecognition. Even when she slinks away to the Philippines they still want to put pictures of her derriere in the magazines. They all want a piece of her." Go on, start using it. Just remember you read it here first.

Anyway, back to the DEAD GUY IN A BOX!

In Bentham's will, he requested that his friend Dr. Southwood Smith preserve his body as a mummy, which Bentham coined as being his "AUTO-ICON."


Dr. Smith obliged, but messed up the preservation of the head, robbing it of any facial expression, and thus replaced it with a wax replica. The head was preserved and kept along with the Auto-icon for a time, but now is locked away in a secure location.


Bentham was considered by many to be the spiritual father of UCL and as a proponent of women's rights and decriminalization of homosexuality, was in tune with the UCL's goal to open its doors to all, regardless of race, creed or political belief. Therefore, in 1850 University College London acquired the Auto-icon and put it on display in the South Cloisters in the main building of the College.

The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head.


Why Bentham did this is a question that no one knows the answer to, but some speculate that it was an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death, to make us look at the discarded corpse of a man and wonder why we venerate the bodies of those that have passed before us.

Frankly, I just thought it was both a little cool and icky at the same time. I wonder if they dress it up for Hallowe'en? They could put cobwebs around the box, and dress Bentham up as a zombie or a ghoul!

Given the veneration that the UCL website heaps upon Bentham, maybe not. Then again, given the stories of the pranks that were rained upon poor old Jeremy's head when it was in the box, including being locked in an Aberdeen train station locker and being used for game of football, perhaps they would.

Posted by GregW 05:22 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tourist_sites

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So how many dead guys in boxes are you up to now?

by Bwaybaby10

Hmm, as far as I know, this is the first one. I've seen lots of boxes holding dead guys, but I think this is the first time I've seen the actual dead guy himself. I missed both Lenin and Mao when I was in Russia and China (respectively).

There was one time in Cuba when the slab was slightly ajar off a crypt, and I could see some bones at the bottom of the crypt, but I don't think that really counts.


by GregW

Hmm, I thought I remembered reading about you seeing both Lenin and Mao, but I must have you confused with some other globe trotter.

by Bwaybaby10

Just to prove that Britney is really GEORECOGNIZED (my new word), an article from Sky news indicating that she came from Tottenham. They, in a clever turn or words, call her Britney SPURS... hehehe. Like the footie club.


Gosh, the British press is so clever!


by GregW

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