A Grave Matter: Legislating Dissection

It’s 1855 in Cleveland, Ohio and you need a surgeon. There were quite a few local options including the physicians out of the Cleveland Medical College and the Western Homeopathic College of Cleveland. In soliciting one of these (mostly) men, you assume that they have the adequate experience to perform whatever operation you need. But where did they get it?

Cleveland Medical College c. 1865
Cleveland Medical College c. 1865

Until December 5, 1855, the citizens of Cleveland were kept in the relative dark about how local medical men gained experience with the human body through dissection. At the time, Ohio had no legal way specified as to how medicals school could acquire bodies for dissection – leading instructors to covertly retrieve bodies from cemeteries or the City Infirmary [1]. Thus, your surgeon’s expertise – which you hoped he possessed – was gained at the potential price of body snatching.

Dr. Horace Ackley, founder of the Cleveland Medical College. Image from the Cleveland Medical Gazette, V. 4, 1889.
Dr. Horace Ackley, founder of the Cleveland Medical College. Image from the Cleveland Medical Gazette, V. 4, 1889.

After a young instructor and his medical students were caught robbing a grave in Woodland Cemetery, Horace Ackley, founder of the Cleveland Medical College, presented the City Council with a new bill to allow the local medical colleges to use the bodies of “friendless paupers and persons found dead” for dissection [2]. In doing so he exposed the secret procurement activities that had been going on for years in the city. This new bill was referred to a special committee of five non-medical gentlemen – making the once private a matter of public debate.

An outpouring of opinion pieces in the Cleveland Leader and Cleveland Plain Dealer followed the new bill. The first opinion piece argued for the necessary supply of subjects for dissection, saying that there were only two ways to learn “anatomical knowledge and surgical skill” – “by Dissection and by Clairvoyance” [3]. After dismissing the second option, the author known only as “K,” asks the readers:

Shall the student practice his first lesson on the dead or living body? Who would submit to be the first living subject of the oretic surgeon only, who had not acquired the proper use of the knife by fine and frequent dissections upon the dead subject? [3]

 In response, another anonymous author by the pen name “Humanity” objects to the use of the poor as potential subjects stating:

 The author of our religion was himself poor, and a prominent characteristic of his religion was sympathy for the poor, his asservations were with the poor; he labored to relieve their wants and sooth their griefs…What must be the feelings of the mother, bereft of friends, children, and property, standing like the forsaken, scathed by the lightning of Heaven, as she sinks by trouble and disease to feel that in a few days her body is to be on the dissecting table? [4]

Articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (here from Dec. 27, 1855) kept citizens up to date with the council decisions.
Articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (here from Dec. 27, 1855) kept citizens up to date with the council decisions.

As these debates continued in the press, the special committee’s decisions varied. For example, one committee member, a Mr. Mollen, believed that the acquisition of dissection subjects should be:

Accomplished in a quiet manner which has been heretofore pursued…inasmuch as those who have charge of out Medical Institutions are men both respectable and responsible, as well as skillful in their professions, and heretofore this matter has been left to their charge solely, with its benefits and its hazards, without complaint of the community. [5]

Thus, Mr. Mollen believed that men like Horace Ackley should continue their discrete work in procuring subjects, regardless of minor scrapes with the law when caught pilfering bodies in cemeteries.

Lecture Card to Attend Dr. Horace Ackley's Classes on Surgery, 1845-1846.
Lecture Card to Attend Dr. Horace Ackley’s Classes on Surgery, 1845-1846.

However, consistency was an issue with the special committee. One proposed ordinance would allow the City Infirmary to hand over bodies after “such persons shall give their consent in writing before death,” making the potential subject aware of their afterlife fate [6]. Other proposals called for storing persons’ bodies in a vault until claimed to prevent seizure by medical professionals [7]. These proposals were overturned in order to prevent the paupers in Infirmaries, from feeling

that while their physicians are attending to them, they are anxiously waiting for them to die, that they may have their bodies to cut up, to satisfy the demands of science! [4]

Finally, these differing opinions were combined in an ordinance that placed the distribution of bodies to the discretion of the Directors of the Infirmary unless the body was claimed by relatives or the person “in his last sickness, requested his body buried” [8]. In this act, the fate of paupers was still kept, legally, in the shadows.

Lecture Card to Attend Dr. Horace Ackley's Classes on Practical Anatomy, 1844-1845.
Lecture Card to Attend Dr. Horace Ackley’s Classes on Practical Anatomy, 1844-1845.

About the Author:
Catherine Osborn, BA, BS, is a graduate student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History.

References:
[1] Curwen, Maskell E., ed. 1853. The public statutes at large of the state of Ohio: from the close of Chase’s Statutes, February 1833 to the present time. And a supplement containing all laws passed prior to February 1833 which are now in force, Volume 2. Cincinnati, OH
[2] “Dissection.” December 5, 1855. Cleveland Plain Dealer. Pg. 2.
[3] K, “Surgeons and Dissecting.” November 29, 1855. Cleveland Plain Dealer. Pg. 3.
[4] Humanity, “Woodland Cemetery.” December 7, 1855. Cleveland Leader. Pg. 3.
[5] Mollen, O. “Minority Report.” December 15, 1855. Cleveland Plain Dealer. Pg. 1.
[6] “City Items.” January 9, 1856. Cleveland Morning Leader. Pg. 2.
[7] “Common Council Proceedings — Regular Meeting, Tuesday Evening, Dec. 18.” December 19, 1855. Cleveland Leader. Pg. 3.
[8] “City Items.” January 16, 1856. Cleveland Leader. Pg. 1.

Published by

Catherine C. Osborn

I am a PhD student in Medical Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University, the Editorial Associate at Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, as well as a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Medical History Center. My research focuses on interpretations of illness and use of medical technologies both cross-culturally and historically. I believe that it is only through multidisciplinary study that health and the human approaches to managing it can be truly understood.

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