On the ground floor of UCL's Student Centre stands a glass case, containing a figure which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors.
The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. Bentham did not leave his body to UCL, as it was only given to the College in 1850. For many years the Auto-Icon was displayed in a wooden cabinet in the South Cloisters of the Wilkins Building, but on 20 February 2020 it was relocated to its new case in UCL's Student Centre on Gordon Square.
Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous myths and legends. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion. Of course, none of this is true.
Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process of desiccation, as practiced by New Zealand Maori, went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs. In 1948 the head was placed inside a specially constructed wooden box to give it more protection. The box was too large to fit inside the Auto-Icon and so it was displayed on top of the case containing the Auto-Icon until 1956, when it was put on a plinth over the door to the Cloisters leading to the eastern staircase. (UCL Archive: Bentham Box File 3).
Extract from Bentham's Will
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. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in the my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon and also on the labels on the glass cases in which the preparations of the soft parts of my body shall be contained ... my name at length with the letters ob: followed by the day of my decease. If it should so happen that my personal friends and other disciples should be disposed to meet together on some day or days of the year for the purpose of commemorating the founder of the greatest happiness system of morals and legislation my executor will from time to time cause to be conveyed to the room in which they meet the said box or case with the contents therein to be stationed in such part of the room as to the assembled company shall seem meet.
Queens Square Place, Westminster, Wednesday 30th May, 1832.
The original will of Jeremy Bentham is available from the National Archives.
However, the head (apparently) proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransom of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransom of £10 and the head was returned. Another myth states that the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish railway station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another myth) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice, and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage - of course, the merest glance at both Bentham's real head or the auto-icon's wax head is evidence enough that this particular story is nonsense.
After the theft in 1975, a memo (3 Nov 1975) instructed that the head be put in the Strong Room of the Records Department. In 2005 it was relocated to the Conservation Safe in the Institute of Archaeology. It was decided that as 'human remains', it was inappropriate to put the head on public display and, particularly given the head's fragility, since then permission to view has been granted only in exceptional circumstances by the curator of the College Collections.
Many people have speculated as to exactly why Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way, with explanations ranging from a practical joke at the expense of posterity, a wish to inspire others to follow his example of donating their bodies to advance medical science, to a sense of overweening self-importance. Perhaps the Auto-Icon may be more plausibly regarded as an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death. Yet whatever Bentham's true motives, the Auto-Icon will always be a source of fascination and debate, and will serve as a perpetual reminder of the man whose ideals inspired the institution in which it stands.
Jeremy Bentham welcomes visitors. Find out how to visit the Auto-Icon.
For more information on the Auto-Icon, including its history, travels and preservation, visit the UCL Culture website.
- 'Fake News: Demystifying Jeremy Bentham', UCL Culture, 2018.
- N. J. Booth, 'Who turned out the lights on Jeremy Bentham?', UCL Museums & Collections Blog, 9 November 2015.
- C. Haffenden, 'Every man his own statue: Bentham’s body as DIY monument’ in Every Man His Own Monument: Self-Monumentalizing in Romantic Britain, Uppsala, 2018, 40–91.
- A. Lipsett, 'How to give a dead man a makeover: first freeze-dry the carpet beetles in his hair...', article in The Times Higher Education Supplement, 16 September 2005.
- C.F.A. Marmoy, 'The "Auto-Icon" of Jeremy Bentham at University College London', Medical History, 2 (1958), 77-86.
- R. Richardson, 'Bentham and Bodies for Dissection', The Bentham Newsletter, x (1986), 22-33.
- R. Richardson and B. Hurwitz, 'Jeremy Bentham's self-image: an exemplary bequest for dissection', British Medical Journal, 295 (July- Dec. 1987).
- P. Schofield, Bentham: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2009)
- E. Smallman, '181-year-old corpse of Jeremy Bentham attends UCL board meeting', article in The Metro, 12 July 2013.