We often discuss the work of Jeremy Bentham in torts as one of the leading figures in the utilitarian movement — the scholar who coined the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Many students, however, remember him primarily for his preservation in a wooden cabinet called his auto-icon from which he would be removed annually to preside over meetings of his society of friends and even given a glass of sherry. The University College of London removed Jeremy last week to give him, or at least his auto-icon, an extreme makeover. The good guy looked pretty good for a 160 year old mummy.
Bentham has specified in his will that he was to be preserved with his reading glasses embedded in his head to be a constant companion to this students and followers. His head however was disfigured in the course of preservation so it was cut off and a wax head put in its place. The real head was then laid at his feet between his legs.
The University College London acquired the body in 1850 and kept Bentham on display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. On the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council to preside over business for the institution. He is by tradition listed as “present but not voting.” However, when the council ties on any motion, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favour of the motion.
It stayed on display at the college until 1975 until it was kidnapped by a group of students demanding a donation to charity of £100 for charity. The university forked over just £10, but the head was returned (no doubt as a demonstration of the greatest good for the greatest number). The head however is no longer on display but Old Jeremy’s cabinet is opened every day to watch over passing students and faculty.
Bentham was removed from his cabinet for a cleaning and the college is going to try to better seal the cabinet to keep the great man from becoming quite so dusty. Since his body is bolted to the chair, the whole chair was removed to the geology department for a “dust-down.”
He is now back in his cabinet watching over the students and faculty with his slightly amused expression.
Kudos: Alexander Moyer