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Bizarre Story of Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Head

Jeremy Bentham was a fascinating figure, radical thinker in the 18th and 19th centuries, he had a walking stick he called Dapple, a teapot he referred to as Dickey and an elderly cat he named The Reverend Sir John Langbourne.

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s body is preserved in his own clothes at University College London, which he helped to found, but the head has been kept in a separate box due to deterioration. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But in death, Bentham was even more unusual. He asked that his body be preserved so that he could be wheeled out at parties if his friends missed him.

Jeremy Bentham’s body has been on display all this time, but the head was removed.

There’s two aspects to the removal. The first is the physical removal of the head from his body when he died. Bentham had made a special request that his head be preserved in the style of the Maori, the Native New Zealanders. But his friend, Dr. Southwood Smith, who was tasked with creating the auto-icon, wasn’t necessarily as practiced with that as he probably would have liked to have been.

And so the result was a head that Southwood Smith said was not suitable for display, which is why he had a wax model commissioned. That’s the one that is on display with the auto-icon, which is the skeleton in Bentham’s own clothes. 

Jeremy Bentham’s head will be on display soon at University College London. (UCL)

The second removal is when it was taken off display. We’re not exactly sure when that happened, but we think it was some time in the 1990s. And that was because the head had been kidnapped by UCL’s rival university, King’s College, in London. So, because of the added security risk to the head, we think that was the reason why it was taken off display at that time.

Now the great man’s disembodied head will feature in an exhibition called “What does it mean to be human?” which explores death and preservation.

In recent years, it has been speculated that Jeremy Bentham was autistic. This speculation arises out of Bentham’s extreme attempts at systematizing human interactions in his formulation of Utilitarianism.

Samples of the philosopher’s brain will also be examined in an attempt to discover if he was autistic.

Bentham was famous for dreaming up the idea of a “panopticon” – a proposal for a prison in which every inmate can be watched by a guard in a central tower.


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