The severed head of eccentric philosopher Jeremy Bentham is to go on display for the first time in decades and scientists are using the opportunity to test his DNA to find out if he was autistic.
Social reformer Bentham, who died in 1832 insisted that his body be preserved after his death as an ‘auto-icon’ so that he could be wheeled out at parties if his friends were missing him.
He also wished to encourage others to donate their bodies to medical science, believing that individuals should make themselves as useful as possible, both in life and death.
And Bentham was a staunch atheist who described church teachings as ‘nonsense on stilts’ and so was opposed to a Christian burial.
For more than 150 years, his body has been kept on public display in a glass case at University College London, however after a mummification mistake, his head was deemed to distasteful to show, and is now kept in safe where it is removed just once a year to check that skin and hair are not falling off.
Now the head will be displayed in a new exhibition looking at death and preservation at UCL, and scientists have taken samples of Bentham’s DNA to test theories that he may have had Asperger’s or autism, both of which have a strong genetic component.
Subhadra Das, Curator of Collections at UCL Culture, said: “I think Bentham would certainly have approved of his head going on public display. It’s what he intended.
“It has also allowed scientists to test his DNA to see if he was autistic. We have been working with the Natural History Museum who have new techniques of studying ancient DNA.
“Studying ancient DNA is like looking at the shredded pages of a book, so much information is missing. And we have found that 99 per cent of the DNA taken has come from bacteria in his mouth. So it may be tricky to come to a firm conclusion.
“We want to explore what drove Bentham to donate his body, but also to address the…