4 min read

From utilitarian to Auto-icon: The strange journeys of Jeremy Bentham

photo of a Jeremy Betham's skeleton dressed in period clothes and wax head and hat in a case by an entrance stairway

Jeremy Bentham at UCL.

As Jeremy Betham’s auto icon moves into the heart of UCL we take a brief look at the man and his most radical idea

Internationally celebrated as a legal thinker and reformer, Jeremy Bentham is best known for developing the influential doctrine of utilitarianism, that is, that an action is right if it increases the greatest good as a critical standard by which to judge laws, institutions, and practices.

This idea is perhaps best encapsulated in the phrase famously associated with him: ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, but this principle of utility was only the starting point for his radical critique of society and its institutions.

Born in 1748, Bentham first trained as a barrister in London but quickly became disillusioned with English legal practice and devoted himself to philosophy instead.

It is these philosophies and ideas that led him to what might be considered his most radical act – the request that his body be dissected for the benefit of medical science and subsequently preserved as an ‘Auto-icon’—or ‘self-image’.

photo of a Jeremy Bentham's skeleton dressed in period clothes and wax head and hat in a case by an entrance stairway

Jeremy Bentham at UCL.

Upon his death in 1832 his good friend, Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, did Bentham’s bidding and preserved his skeleton, which was articulated and dressed in suit of his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head.

Bentham had requested that his real head be part of the Auto-icon, but the results of the attempt to preserve it were decidedly unattractive. Instead, Smith commissioned Dr Jacques Talrich, a physician turned producer of anatomical models, to produce a wax head.

Bentham’s real head remains stored in safe conditions at University College London (UCL) and his Auto-icon has been in UCL’s possession since 1850.

In March 2020, Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-icon moved to an exciting new home in the Student Centre, which provides the very best preservation conditions, greater visitor access and a place at the centre of the student community.

It’s a pertinent setting as today Bentham’s influence is felt right across the academic spectrum, and his writings are still at the centre of debates in areas like social policy, legal positivism, and welfare economics.

His most famous principle of utility was only the starting point for his radical critique of society, as Bentham aimed to provide a standard by which to evaluate existing institutions, practices, and beliefs.

During his long life he challenged received thought on a wide range of topics, ranging from law reform, criminal transportation, international law, animal welfare, and administration.

He devised a blueprint for representative democracy and his attempts to measure utility now lie at the root of modern theories of cost-benefit analysis. He also laid out a systematic theory of punishment which emphasised deterrence, proportionality and mildness of punishment, and reformation of prisoners.

photo of a Jeremy Bentham's skeleton dressed in period clothes and wax head and hat in a case by an entrance stairway

Jeremy Bentham at UCL.

Bentham also advocated for women’s suffrage and was a proponent of sexual liberty, calling for the elimination of legal or religious sanctions on all forms of consensual sexual activity.

A radical and a great thinker – what better thought provoking object could there be to welcome University students and give them pause for thought in their place of learning?

Watch this film about the installation of Jeremy Bentham’s auto icon.

Five facts about Jeremy Bentham:

1. Bentham was the inventor of many words you hear today in the board room. Maximize, manageability, monetary, percentage, secretarial to name a few…

2. Bentham wasn’t one of the founders of UCL. Although he was included in a mural of the actual founders by Henry Tonks in 1922 and was friends with its founders, notably James Mill and Henry Brougham.

3. Bentham collected recipes for a prison cook book designed to maximise nutritious value without raising costs. Liver and bone jelly soup, anyone?

4. Bentham may have been the earliest jogger – or, as he put it, ‘circumgyrater’. According to the journalist George Wheatley, who stayed with the 81 year old Bentham in 1831, before both breakfast and dinner Bentham would take ‘a few turns in the garden’.

5. Bentham was a dedicated writer. He produced around 20 pages of manuscript writing every day until his death. You can find 100k pages in the UCL Special Collections. (You can take part in the Bentham Project to help UCL transcribe his works at https://bit.ly/3aKcnbR)

Explore more about Jeremy Bentham on the UCL website and blog:

10 things you didn’t know about Jeremy Bentham

How do you move an Auto-Icon?

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *