Last week, we featured an online exhibit about dermatology and photography, featuring the work of William Thomas Corlett. This week, I will be presenting material that I have always found personally fascinating–a history of anatomy in pictures!
This online exhibit features photographs from our collection of approximately three hundred dissection images (yes!). Most of these intriguing photographs feature a group of students gathered around the cadaver, either actively dissecting or just posing, often wearing their best suits. The students, not the cadavers. Well, not usually.
Anatomical dissection and medical education.
Beginning in fourteenth century Italy and lasting through the eighteenth century students learned anatomy by observing dissection. Once or twice a year, the anatomy instructor dissected a cadaver with all the students in attendance, eagerly watching the proceeding. The students observed but did not do the dissection themselves. This changed in the mid-eighteenth century, first in Paris and then in London, as students increasingly performed their own dissections upon cadavers. This constituted a fundamental change in medical education, placing greater emphasis upon learning not only by seeing, but also by doing.
Medical students were understandably proud of having dissected a human cadaver. It comprised the most important initiation into a life in medicine, and took on the character of a ritual. Through dissection, they obtained invaluable anatomical information and insights that formed the cornerstone of their medical knowledge. Dissection gave more than merely utilitarian knowledge, however. Dissecting a cadaver also compelled students to come to terms with their own apprehensions and anxieties about death, and the bodies of the dead. The resolution of these issues gave medical students a sense of mastery and power. It engendered a special camaraderie among physicians, and at the same time set them apart from the rest of society. Through dissection they had been inducted into the medical profession, even if much study remained before them. Given the centrality of this experience, it is little wonder that students sought some way to record it. The advent of photography in 1839 gave them a remarkable, compelling new means to do so.
The online exhibit features four categories: Group Portraits, Postcards, Class Photographs–and my personal favorite–Tomfoolery and Humor. Medical students occasionally made prank photographs with a humorous intent. A popular subject is having the cadaver join in a card game. Another variant features a role reversal: the medical student on the dissection table, attended by cadavers.
The most common dissection image is the group portrait showing students gathered around the dissection table in gross anatomy class, and tables are often inscribed with the school name and students’ class year!
These amazing photographs tell stories of a unique approach to death, to science, to discovery and to the human body. They are also collected and detailed in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930, by John Harley Warner and our own James M. Edmonson (Dittrick curator). Read more about the book and get an order form here.
For more about the images and the online exhibit, visit the Dittick Museum page on haunting images–and stay tuned for more online exhibits from the Dittrick Museum of Medical History!
About the blogger
Brandy Schillace is a medical humanist, literary scholar and writer of Gothic fiction. She is the Managing Editor for Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, a guest curator for Dittrick Museum, and a SAGES fellow for Case Western Reserve University (she has also worked as an assistant professor of literature at Winona State). She runs the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blogs, leads interdisciplinary conferences abroad for IDnet, and spends a lot of her time in museums and medical libraries.