Jeremy Bentham

was an English author, jurist, philosopher, and legal as well as social reformer. He became a leading theorist in Anglo-American philosophy of law, and a political radical whose ideas influenced the development of welfarism. He is best known for his advocacy of utilitarianism and animal rights, and the idea of the panopticon.

His body is preserved as the famous <em>Auto-Icon</em> at the University College, London, where it is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the college, just in front of the prevost’s office. As requested in his will, Bentham’s body was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture. Afterwards, the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet; the skeleton was stuffed with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes. Originally kept by his disciple Thomas Southwood Smith it was acquired by UCL in 1850. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, it was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where it was listed as present but not voting.

Bentham had intended the <em>Auto-Icon</em> to incorporate his actual head, mummified to resemble its appearance in life. However, Southwood Smith’s experimental efforts at this method of preservation, although technically successful, left the head looking macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched over the skull. The <em>Auto-Icon</em> was therefore given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair. The real head was displayed in the same case as the <em>Auto-Icon</em> for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks. It is now locked away securely in UCL’s special collections.

A 360-degree rotatable, high-resolution Virtual Auto-Icon is available at the UCL Bentham Project’s website.

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Contributed by Jeremy Bentham

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