The Lee Benefactions and the origins of the Christ Church Science Laboratory

The Lee Building today (originally the Christ Church Laboratories)

The Origins of the Study of Anatomy at Oxford.

In 1546 Henry VIIIth created five Regius Chairs in the University, one of which was in Medicine but it was not until 1st October 1624 that one "Richard Tomlins of the Citty of Westminster Esquier" did "found constitute and ordayne an Anatomye Lector to be for ever read and performed in the said Vniversitie" - this was the Tomlins Readership in Anatomy which was attached to the Regius Chair. The first Reader was especially chosen and nominated by Tomlins as "his worthy friend Thomas Clayton" who held this position (and the Regius Chair) until 1643.

As early as 1549 medical undergraduates in Oxford had been required to study for six years and to witness at least two dissections before they were entitled to a B.A. degree, and they were then required to perform at least two dissections themselves and to prove that they had effected at least three cures before they could practise medicine. Such requirements were established by Edward VI's Visitation of the University of Oxford (1549) which led to rejection of existing Statutes, the Visitors being given sweeping powers for the drawing up of new Statutes and even the right to assign one College solely for the study of medicine. And so for the first time a student had to see and to perform dissections on a human body.
This led to the problem of procuring corpses! Every spring after the Lent Assizes the Reader had if possible to procure " a Sounde body of one of the Executed persons". For obvious reasons (!) nothing happened in the summer, and in the Michaelmas Term, when the Assizes did not occur, the Reader lectured on "the Sceleton or History of the bones with theire Scituation Nature and Office". Lectures were given in the Anatomy School (part of the Bodleian Library) until they were transferred to the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

Clayton demonstrated Anatomy in the manner carefully prescribed by Tomlins. For these duties he received £25 per annum from which he paid £3 to the Chirurgion (the surgeon who assisted him) and £2 for the collection and subsequent "decent buriall of the body and all the necessaries therevnto". After Clayton the Tomlins Readership in Anatomy had to be held forever by the Regius Professor of Medicine.

The supply of bodies was helped by the Charter of Charles 1st (1636) which permitted the Reader to demand the body of any person executed within twenty-one miles around Oxford.

In 1730 a riot almost occurred over a body for dissection:

"Hanged at Oxford, one Richard Fuller of Caversham in Oxfordshire, a young man of 26 years of age for murdering his wife. There was sad work on that occasion, the Scholars endeavouring to get the body, assisted by some Townesmen and others on the contrary hindering. The Relations had provided a coffin to have it decently buried at Caversham but the Scholars broke it all to pieces, the body being in it; after which those opposite to the Scholars had it again and so for several times, sometimes one side had it and sometimes the other, but the Proctors favouring the Relatives, the body was at last delivered to them and brought to the Castle; about eleven at night when all was thought still, it was taken to the water side to send it away in a Boat, but to their surprise, the Scholars were lying in Ambush and coffin and all was thrown into the water, but the Scholars soon went in in great numbers and drew it out and carried it to Christ Church to dissect it. the Tumult was so extraordinary that the Town Clerk was forced to read the Proclamation but to no purpose, the Rioters crying out they did not hear it."
from T. Hearne, Remarks and collections, 1705-1735. 11 vols. (Oxf. Hist. Soc.). 1884-1918.

Famous (unofficial) Anatomy Teachers.

In the latter half of the 17th century number of famous figures made important contributions to the study of Anatomy. Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is reported to have "compos'd a Treatise of the Motion of the Muscles, explaining the whole Anatomy by Models form'd in Pasteboards" and Robert Boyle (1627-91) introduced the present practice of preserving moist specimens in alcohol reporting that: " for the preservation of a humane body ...we have for curiosity sake, with this spirit [of wine], preserv'd from further stinking, a portion of fish, so stale, that it shin'd very vividly in the dark".

Anatomy in the Eighteenth Century: Dr. John Freind

The end of the 17th century saw a rapid decline of medical science in Oxford. The Royal Society was flourishing and the best men were attracted to London. The eighteenth century saw the Regius Professors uninterested in carrying out their duties as Tomlins Readers, the teaching of Anatomy being left to their deputies and other unofficial teachers.

It is thought that the creation of the laboratory had originally been suggested by John Freind, physician to Queen Caroline, who gave a course in Chemistry in 1704.

Dr. John Freind (1675-1728)

His will directed that, if his son should die without children, £1000 would be given for the building of an Anatomy School at Christ Church and for the salary of a Reader in the subject. It is not clear what happened to this benefaction but the son died unmarried in 1750 and it is probable that the bequest was indeed made to Christ Church since 1750 is the commonly quoted date of the foundation of the Matthew Lee Readership (the Freind bequest would in any case have been inadequate for the purpose intended).

Dr. Matthew Lee

A bust of Dr. Lee by Roubiliac. This was placed in the Anatomy School (now the Lee Building) in 1758 in memory of his foundation of the School and the Lectures.

Matthew Lee was educated at Westminster School and then studied at Christ Church. He subsequently practiced Medecine in Oxford and London and was physician to Frederick, Prince of Wales. His will provided a substantial sum (ca. £2300) for a building, a Readership and running costs (the costs of supplying bodies for dissection). The little Georgian building, originally known as the Anatomy School, was erected in the School Quadrangle, tucked away to the south of the Hall. It was designed and built at a cost of £1200 in 1766-7 by Henry Keene on the site of the organist's house and became the Christ Church science laboratory.

The Anatomy School, Christ Church

The lecture room, which had a gallery, occupied part of the ground and first floors, and the basement was used for dissection and "had a receptacle in which the bodies are deposited after the lecture was completed. This place is a hole dug in the ground to the depth of about 13 or 14 feet; and to remove all offensive smell, a little stream is turned through". This corner of Christ Church became known as "Skeleton Corner" and it was arranged that bodies could be brought to the Anatomy School by the back entrance "without scandal to the college"!

Subsequently the "Lee Building" was used as a picture store but it is now part of the Senior Common Room.

İM.C.Grossel (1996)