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This auto-icon was created according to the wishes of philosopher, father of utilitarianism, and ‘spiritual founder’ of University College London Jeremy Bentham. The now famous relic is Bentham’s skeleton, dressed in his clothes, with a wax head, and it sits today in UCL’s Student Centre. Bentham’s close friend, physician Thomas Southwood Smith, dissected his body during a public lecture in 1832, and created the auto-icon, which was given to UCL in 1850. It has been posited that Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way ‘as an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death’. Today, the auto-icon serves as a reminder of the man whose ideal of an education open to all, irrespective of race or religion, inspired the university’s founding. It also symbolises that – for humanists – what survives us is what we leave behind in this world and the impact we have had on other people, society, and human knowledge.

Bentham’s instructions, part of his will, read:

My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned, and I direct… he will take my body under his charge and take the requisite and appropriate measures for the disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame in the manner expressed in the paper annexed to this my will and at the top of which I have written Auto Icon. The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing.

Bentham also noted that should ‘personal friends and other disciples’ decide to meet in memory of the ‘the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals’, (utilitarianism) then the auto-icon in its box could be wheeled in to attend.

Image: Met Museum

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