Modernity in medicine and hygiene at the end of the 19th century: the example of cremation

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Alessandro Porro(1*)Bruno Falconi(2)Carlo Cristini(3)Lorenzo Lorusso(4)Antonia F. Franchini(5)

Medicine in the second half of the nineteenth century takes on some characteristics of modernity. These characteristics are worthy of our attention because they help us to understand better some of the current problems of hygiene and public health. One of the topics that was most discussed in the scientific-academic milieu of the second half of the nineteenth century was cremation. There was a poetic precedent: the cremation of Percy Bysse Shelley (1792-1822). The earliest apparatus to completely destroy the corpse was made in Italy and Germany in the 1870s. As far as hygiene was concerned, the reasons for cremation were not to pollute the water-bearing strata and an attempt to streamline the cemetery structure. As in an apparent schizophrenia, scientists of the day worked to both destroy and preserve corpses. There is also the unusual paradox that when the first cremations took place, the corpses were first preserved then to be destroyed later. The catholic world (mainly in Italy) and forensic scientists opposed cremation. It was left to the hygienists to spread the practice of cremation. An analysis of scientific literature shows us that if we leave out the related forensic and ethical problems, recent years have seen attention paid to any harmful emissions from crematoria equipment which have poured into the environment. Another issue is the assessment of inadvertent damage which may be caused by the condition of the corpse. Some topics, however, such as the need for preventive autopsies (first proposed in 1884 in Milan) are still a subject of debate, and seem to pass virtually unchanged from one generation to the next.
Author Biographies

Bruno Falconi, Università degli Studi di Brescia


Professore Aggregato di Storia della medicina

Carlo Cristini, Università degli Studi di Brescia


Professore Associato di Psicologia Generale

Lorenzo Lorusso, A. O. Mellino Mellini – Chiari


Antonia F. Franchini, Università degli Studi di Milano



Professore Aggregato di Storia della Medicina

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