Monday, April 14, 2008

Bentham Mythbusting

In the April 2008 NEA Newsletter, Professor John Thelin's keynote address from the October 2007 NEA meeting is reprinted. Toward the end of his talk, he comments on his "Ideal Professor", saying "My candidate is Jeremy Bentham, famous as a 19th century philosopher who also taught at the University of London. Bentham left a generous part of his estate to the university with the condition that for perpetuity he be allowed to attend university faculty meetings. To this day, his embalmed body housed in a glass case is wheeled into meeting. And the faculty minutes always note that 'Professor Bentham did not vote or speak' ...."

Cute story, but not, as they say, entirely accurate. I knew that Bentham's preserved (not embalmed) corpse was still around, but I hadn't heard the faculty meeting part before, so I moseyed over to the University College of London's Bentham Project page to see what I could find. They write: "At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of UCL stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors. The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head (image here). Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850.

"Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion."

There is, however, a grain of truth to the rumor, as least if one of the UCL department webpages is to be believed: "At the centenary and sesquicentenary of the college, he was brought out to the College Committee meeting. He sat at one end of the table, the Provost at the other, and the minutes record 'Jeremiah Bentham, present but not voting'." So not every faculty meeting, but on special occasions, apparently Mr. Bentham has been known to make an appearance.

Further reading:
- The excerpt from Bentham's will where he suggests the rather unconventional arrangement for his remains.

- C.F.A. Marmoy, "The 'Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham at University College, London." Medical History, April 1958; 77-86.

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