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Jeremy Bentham: Permanently Preserved Philosopher


1: Jeremy Bentham

Unlike Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud, 'Jeremy Bentham' isn't really a household name. But Bentham

went from being a child prodigy, studying Latin at the age of three, to becoming a highly respected thinker.

Some have placed him in the same league as Greek philosopher and polymath Artistotle.


Noted for having begun studying at Queens College, Oxford at the age of 12, Bentham found the law was not for

him. Rather than practising law, he criticised it. His father's demise left him financially secure and he lived a quiet

life in Westminster, steadily producing between ten and 20 pages of writings every day for almost 40 years.

Bentham's output wasn't all about the law and its shortcomings. The principle of Utilitarianism was his forte, he 

believed in the principle of 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. This was only a core ideal for

Bentham's applying a rigorous standard of testing to existing beliefs, practices and institutions. He had much to

say about a wide variety of subjects, from  supporting reform of the law, to criticising political doctrines. He spoke

out about prison reform too, and religion, poor relief and  animal welfare. He supported for giving the vote to all,

the right to divorce and for the legalisation of homosexuality. Bentham was a  visionary, and the first to use the

words 'international' and 'monetary'. In short, he was well ahead of his time in almost everything he did.


A Fine Madness?

"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."

Oscar Levant, 1959

American actor, author, comedian, composer and pianist Oscar Levant was being cynical wehn he said this but the

first part of his statement rings true, especially if applied to Jeremy Bentham. This is not to say that Bentham was

insane; this would be a baseless insult to his emory. However, he was one of those endearing characters, a great

British eccentric.


Bentham's eccentricity manifested itself in various, perfectly harmless ways. He described himself as, being…

'in a state of perpetual and unruffled gaiety'. Though not especially shy, he didn't crave the company of others.

When friends came round to dine, Bentham had forearmed himself with a list of topics of

conversation. He was a confirmed bachelor, though he could be moved to tears by a memory from his romantic

young days.


He also clearly thought fitness beneficial. He was a keen player of 'battledore', a cross between badminton and

;keep-uppy'; the shuttlecock had to be kept airborne for as long as possible. Bentham would also be seen walking

briskly in and around London's parks. This pursuit, 'circumgyrating', was an early forerunner of jogging.

At home, Bentham had pets. He had a tomcat, who everyone had to refer to as 'The Reverend John Langholme'.

The Reverend John can't have been much of a mouser as Bentham's mice ran free in his office. A pet pig is

reputed to have been Bentham's bedfellow for a while. And Bentham had a pet teapot. Really? Yes, his 'sacred

teapot' was named 'Dickey.' Even his favourite walking stick had a name – he called it 'Dapple'.


Lasting Legacies


Bentham had unusual views about death and after-death practices. Leaving a body to rot in the earth was

unhygienic, repugnant and wasteful. And to Bentham, death was irretrievably enmeshed in religious superstition

and fear.


Jeremy Bentham sent a letter to London City Council, seeking permission to replace his garden's plants with

mummified corpses, as they would be, ...'more aesthetic than flowers.' A year later, in 1832, he expanded on this

notion in his pamphlet, 'Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living.' Bentham felt that each person could

become his own statue, a monument to himself. Bentham called this an 'Auto-Icon'.


The Maori tradition of preserving human heads, complete with their traditional tattoos, offered Bentham

nspiration. He further said, ' If a country gentleman has rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the auto-icons of his

family might alternate with the trees; copal varnish would protect the face from the effects of rain'. In other

words, Bentham was proposing to establish which would be best? A painting? A statue? Or one's tangible

person, preserved for all time, for all to see?


Bentham was, if you'll pardon the pun, deadly serious. To his mind, preserving and displaying a body was a safe

way of making corpses useful as permanent memorials to their living former selves. The creation of auto-icons

was proposed as a practical and rational alternative to a churchyard burial. Though the very idea was 

characteristic of Bentham's way of thinking, his friends were wise enough to keep his auto-icons pamphlet to

themselves. It didn't go into publication until long after his death.


Jeremy Bentham's Last Will and Testament written when he was only 21, contained some highly specific

instructions. He left his body to his friend, Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith. After Bentham passed away, the famous

physician followed his instructions to the letter.


                                                                                     s smith

2: Dr.Thomas Southwood Smith

On the 9th June 1832, three days after his death at 84 years of age, Bentham's body lay in a plain white

nightshirt, on a dissecting table at the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine in Southwark, London. It was

a gloomy afternoon, and 28 of Bentham's close friends had gathered, to pay their last respects. They'd come in

response to Southwood Smith's written invitation…



It was the earnest desire of the late Jeremy Bentham that his Body should be appropriated to an illustration of

the Structure and Functions of the Human Frame. In compliance with this wish, Dr. Southwood Smith will

deliver a Lecture, over the Body, on the Usefulness of Knowledge of this kind to the Community. The Lecture

will be delivered at the Webb-Street School of Anatomy and Medicine, Webb-Street, Borough, Tomorrow, at

Three o'Clock, at which the honour of your presence, and that of any two friends who may wish to accompany

you, is requested.'


As lightning flashed and thunder rolled outside, Dr. Southwood Smith went to work, deftly stripping the skin and

flesh from his friend's bones. In accordance with Bentham's instructions, Southwood Smith placed the 'soft parts'

into glass containers 'like wine decanters', neatly labelled ready to accept their contents.


Bentham's denuded bones were dexterously articulated with copper wire. The headless skeleton was re-

assembled in a seated position and clad in Bentham's clothes, padded out with cotton wool, straw and hay. A

sachet containing naphthalene and lavender, both moth-repellants, was put in the stomach area.


So far, Dr. Southwood Smith's work had been exemplary. The next step was to preserve Bentham's head, using a

technique similar to the one used on New Zealand Maoris. Bentham is said to have carried in his pocket a pair of

specially made glass eyes for six months before he died. It was time for them to be used.


Southwood Smith meant well but his attempt at mummification went sadly wrong. Putting the head over

sulphuric acid under glass, and using a vacuum pump to draw out the fluids worked well but left the the head

looking distinctly ghastly, with the staring glass eyes surrounded by a skull clad in tense, dried and darkened skin.

As Dr. Southwood Smith said, 'All expression was of course gone'.


                                                                            mummy head

          3: Jeremy Bentham's poorly mummified head(with glass eyes)


Dr. Southwood Smith commissioned Jacques Talrich, a French artist, to make a replacement waxwork head. The

outcome was an excellent representation of Bentham as he appeared in life. It was fitted with one  of Bentham's

hats and placed on the spike originally destined to carry the real head.


Bentham's auto-icon went on display in Southwood Smith's New Broad Street house, before being moved to his

new residence in Finsbury Square. The body and case were then taken to University College London, the

establishment of which Bentham was considered the 'spiritual father'. The initial location of the display is unknown

but it ended up in the Anatomical Museum.



                                                   wax head

4: Bentham's waxwork head


Looking After Bentham

The auto-icon was inspected for the first time In 1898, some 66 years after it was assembled. Professor (later Sir)

George Thane and the Curator of the Anatomy Museum, T. W. P. Lawrence carried out the inspection. Their

findings throw light on some aspects of the display.


January 3, 1898

We opened the case containing the figure of Jeremy Bentham, and took out the latter. It was  rather dusty, but

not very much so. The clothes were much moth eaten, especially the undervest, and if taken off it would probably

have been impossible to get the last on again. We undid the clothes, and found that they were stuffed with hay and

tow, around the skeleton, which had been  macerated (softened) and skilfully articulated. Both hands are present

inside the gloves-the feet were not examined.

In place of the head is a wax bust, which is supported on an iron spike. The head was found, wrapped in cloth

saturated with some bituminous or tarry substance (a sort of tarpaulin) and then in paper, making a parcel, in

the cavity of the trunk-skeleton, being fastened by strong wire running from the ribs to the vertebral column. On

unpacking this the head itself was found to be mummified, dried, and prepared, by clearing any suboccipital

(beneath the back of the skull) soft parts, so that it looks not unlike a New Zealand head. In the sockets are glass

eyes. The atlas (top part of the spine), which had been macerated , is  fastened in its natural place below the

cccipital bone. At the top of the head is a small hole in the skull, where the tip of the spike  had doubtless come

through, and round the hole is an impression formed by a circular washer and nut which had fitted the screw on

the end of the spike, and by which the head was formerly fixed on the trunk. The face is clean shaved-hair scanty,

grey and long.

(Signed) T. W. P. LAWRENCE and G. D. T.


So, the original, distorted head had been inside Bentham's body all along.


Bentham's Travels


In 1939, when World War 2 broke out, Bentham's auto-icon was restored, cleaned and restuffed. It spent the first part of

the war hidden down in the University's cloisters , under a pile of books. For safety's sake, it was taken from the

blitz-stricken city to Ware, in Hertfordshire. When Bentham was brought back in 1945, it was decided to display

Bentham's real head. Placed by his feet on the floor of the case, it was a curious sight.



                                                              mono inspection

5: Inspecting the Bentham Auto-Icon, probably in 1945

Bentham was inspected again at this time, and was given new padding (of tow, broken fibres  of flax, hemp or

jute). His skeleton was found to be in good order and it was noticed that his coccyx (tail-bone, lowest spinal

vertebrae) was in fact an artificial replacement. Another inspection followed in 1981.


In Spring 1992, Jeremy Bentham went on the road, or rather some of him did. A mannequin was dressed in his

clothes and fitted with his waxen head. While his skeleton stayed at home, the rest of Bentham was taken to Essen

in Germany, on loan to the Villa Hugel Museum. On being repatriated, Bentham's head was found to have damage

on the nose and forehead; his coat was missing a button. This didn't mean that Bentham was 'grounded'. He was

prepared for another loan to Essen.

Activity of Attagenus pellio (carpet beetles) was discovered in the wax head's hair. Bentham's little passengers

(five dead larvae and one live beetle) didn't return to Germany with him.


Trouble Ahead


Meanwhile, concern was mounting about the remains of Bentham's real head. It was believed that the appearance

of the head had changed and that it may be deteriorating. Careful scrutinisation revealed that the head was not

altering. Arrangements were made for a formal inspection and recording of the head's condition, as an objective

benchmark for future assessments.


However, the authentic head was still destined for trouble, of a sort. A long-standing, decidedly non-academic

rivalry between University College London and King's College London led to student pranks. Myth suggests that

the head was stolen by students from King's College in the 1970s, to be found later in Aberdeen Station in a left

luggage locker. Other say it was stolen and was used as a football in a drunken game. Thesen are no more than

unfounded tales. In fact, the King's College students who appropriated the head in the 1970s demanded a  £100

ransom. University College London's vow to pay the sum of £10 to the charity Shelter settled the matter. Honour

was satisfied on both sides.



6: Taking Bentham out on the town during 1970s high jinks


It's also true to say that Bentham's head was in a fragile state, and would certainly not have survived even

temporary duty as a soccer ball. However, more than student pranks led to the real head's being locked safely

away, in a wooden box under rigorous climatic conditions. The glaring, wizened head was upsetting those of more

delicate sensibilities, and questions were also asked about the ethics of displaying it.


                                                              mummy head 2

      7: Bentham's head, now no longer exhibited


Another tale, about Benthan's auto-icon attending college council meetings, being recorded a 'present, not voting is

also fictional. The auto-icon was taken, in February 1976, to the 150th anniversary of the founding of the

College. And he was taken to dinner during the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference at University College



Last Word


Bentham's auto-icon may still be viewed today. It sits at the end of the South Cloisters and can be visited on

campus between about 8am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. Special out of hours viewings can be arranged.

Bentham's work continues, in a sense. Since 1968, twenty-eight volumes of the new collected works of Bentham

have been published. This leaves only 48 more volumes of the expected 70 volumes. The labour of love


The last word can come from Bentham himself. What he had to say remains true over 181 years after his death.

"Twenty years after I am dead, I shall be a despot,

sitting in my chair with Dapple in my hand, and

wearing one of the coats I wear now."


auto icon

8: Bentham's Auto-Icon, as currently displayed


Image Attributions

1: Bentham Papers Archive

2: Octavia Hill

3, 4, 5, 7 & 8: by kind permission of UCL Creative Media

6: Source unclear, possibly King's College London Student Union

Grateful thanks to...

Nick Booth. Curator, Teaching and Research, University College, London

Dr. Petra Lange-Berndt, Department of History of Art, University College, London

Michael Quinn, Senior Research Associate, Bentham Projec,t UCL Faculty of Laws



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