Photographic History of Human Dissection

New book featuring group portraits with the cadaver offers uncomfortable insight into an era of medical education.
April 29, 2009

Posing for a group photograph with a cadaver was, it turns out, common practice at medical schools in the late 19th and early 20th century. A new book -- but maybe not one for the coffee table -- Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930 (Blast Books) features composed (not candid) photographs from all types of medical schools, prestigious and proprietary, for women and for men, situated in cities and small towns. Some photos even ended up on holiday cards or postcards of the era.

“Realizing the absolute ubiquity of the photographs led me to ask what’s going on here, how can we read these? They’re arresting, they’re disturbing, but is there a way to go beyond that and try to find meaning?” asks John Harley Warner, co-author of Dissection and professor and chair of history of medicine at Yale University.

Photo: Used by permission of Blast Books, Inc.

Christmas greeting card, school unknown, ca. 1920. Dittrick Medical History Center.

The images in Dissection are indeed disturbing -- and not only because they feature bodies in varying states of decay, some quite shredded by scalpels. The book also explores the uncomfortable dynamics of class and race at work in the relationship between medical student and cadaver. The cadaver is in some cases an unclaimed body but, in others, it is literally stolen property -- exhumed by night by professional "resurrectionists," pulled from a coffin by a hook or rope around the neck, stripped, and stuffed into a sack, as Warner relates the process.

Photo: Used by permission of Blast Books, Inc.

Probably Rush Medical College, Chicago, ca. 1915. Private collection.

The corpses were disproportionately those of the poor, and of African Americans. “Public officials and civic leaders were inclined to look the other way so long as resurrectionists kept to what one anatomist in 1896 called the ‘prudent line of stealing only the bodies of the poor,’ ” Warner writes.

At the same time, Warner stresses that the utter anonymity of the cadavers -- of hundreds of photographs, only one, that of “Stiff – Thomas Martin,” was identified by name and cause of death (tuberculosis) -- contrasts with the careful id'ing of the medical students. The photographs are often accompanied by keys with those depicted numbered and named, and students often inscribed their names and home states into the very composition of the image, by painting them onto their smocks, for example.

“These are above all to me statements of identity,” Warner says, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “They’re group portraits. What captures my eye is not the cadaver. It's the students, the dissectors, sometimes the professors, gathered around."

Photo: Used by permission of Blast Books, Inc.

Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons, ca. 1905–6. Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.

Certain common objects appear in many of the photographs -- including cigars and pipes, which helped mask the stench of dissection rooms, Warner writes -- and a whole section of the book is dedicated to pranks and dark humor. For instance, in a 1905 photo with “A Student’s Dream” chalked onto the dissecting table, six well-used cadavers are propped up around a balding medical student who lies flat, as if he is the one to be cut open. Photographs also took the form of whole class portraits.

Photo: Used by permission of Blast Books, Inc.

Harvard Medical School, Boston, 1905. The Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.

About 70 percent of the 138 photos included in the book are from the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University (the museum’s chief curator, James M. Edmonson, is co-author of Dissection), with the rest coming from a private collection and scattered archives and libraries.

The images are a peculiar phenomenon of their era. By the 1930s, the photographic tradition "had faded away," Warner writes. Donated-body programs began developing after World War II, and in the 1970s faculty discussed "humanizing the student-cadaver encounter." In the 1980s and '90s, professors moved a step beyond humanizing dissection, hoping "to harness this emotion-laden experience as a positive ingredient in professional formation."

Photo: Used by permission of Blast Books, Inc.

School unknown, ca. 1950. Dittrick Medical History Center.

“Photographs like those in this book ... are becoming much more than just a curious window onto a discomforting past,” writes Warner. “They are also providing a springboard to critical self-examination of what students continue to describe as an activity that feels simultaneously wrong and very right.”

Warner sees the photographs as valuable teaching tools. “Our students are very anxious about this process," he says. "It’s unsettling, that is, their initiation into dissecting a cadaver. I thought: Maybe I can actually use that to their benefit by showing these photos that are very disturbing and asking what’s going on here, is this completely different from what you’re doing or are there links -- without answering the questions, but just raising them.”


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