A philosopher’s mummified head is on display at the University College London. The head belonged Jeremy Bentham, who was a utilitarian philosopher when he was alive.
When Bentham died, he made specific requirements in his will that his body should be preserved.
Bentham’s mummified body has been on display at UCL for the past 150 years but had a false wax head, until now. The head sits under a glass dome where the remaining features of his face can be viewed.
What Bentham really did, that changed the way we think about dead bodies, is he said a body is more useful if someone who is a medical professional can examine and learn from it rather than bury it, or burn it up. He even determined that his autopsy could provide a grim opportunity for people; he invited his friends to watch his dissection, which was well attended.
The University College London didn’t get Bentham’s head and body right after the dissection. Bentham’s protege and dissector, Thomas Southwood Smith, kept it in his home for 18 years. University College London acquired Bentham’s body in 1850.
Researchers are currently trying to extract Bentham’s DNA from his head to test for certain traits and diseases. Among other things, UCL is testing the DNA for autism, as some have stated that Bentham appears to have displayed autistic traits in his life.
Originally, the head and body were displayed together, as they are now. However, students consistently used the head for pranks, which required it to be locked away. Hopefully, the same does not happen again.
Even in the 18th century, Bentham was a social reformer and advocate for women’s rights, abolition, and the decriminalization of homosexuality. We have a lot to learn from his teachings, not just his DNA.
You can learn more about Bentham’s life, death and teachings here