It’s #MuseumWeek, where museums around the world take to Twitter in a behind-the-scenes look at collections! Today’s theme is people. Follow us here on the blog, on Twitter and on Instagram all week to keep up with each event! #peopleMW
Although the Dittrick Museum’s collections primarily focus on medical tools and artifacts, a close look around the galleries reveals a few human specimens ever ready to greet visitors with perpetual (and sometimes toothless) smiles. Like the surgical sets and pharmaceuticals they’re featured next to, these specimens were also tools — tools used to teach students about the human body.
Our collections include many historic images of medical students engaged in dissection, often with each trainee’s name inscribed on the photo. Meanwhile, the identities of the cadavers, like our featured human specimens, remain unknown. Little information is available to answer questions such as: Who were these people? Why did they become objects of anatomical study?
Close-up of Muncaster Skeleton
Muncaster Skeleton through Cabinet Window
Period Room in Dittrick Museum
For example, the young male skeleton featured in our period doctor’s office came from Dr. Charles A. Muncaster, a graduate of the Western Reserve School of Medicine, class of 1919. He had acquired the specimen during his studies in 1915, a time when an articulated skeleton sold for $45 to $75. Advertisements for osteological specimens offered no details about the source of their materials, only the quality of the articulation.
In 1968, besides the two human specimens shown above, Muncaster donated his complete obstetrical bag, providing a snap-shot of early 20th century physician-assisted childbirth. Like Dr. Muncaster, the museum’s collections have been greatly enriched by generous patrons’ donations of their professional tools. The artifacts tell not only the stories of individual practitioners, but also of patients, education and historical understandings of health and the body.
I’ve spent a surprising number of hours unearthing the unusual history of anatomy, dissection, and yes–body snatching. That story links early anatomists like Vesalius (Fabric of the Human Body) to murderers Burke and Hare, to the grave-robbery that supplied bodies to a growing medical community. Here at the Dittrick Museum, we have a comprehensive collection of dissection photography as a rite of passage in American medicine 1880-1930, and curator James Edmonson and John Harley Warner put together an entire pictorial book of them. Between my work on the history of medicine and my research for Death’s Summer Coat (US in 2015), I’ve become very aware of the progress–and problems–of cadaver use, storage, and procurement. So, when the Economist ran a story last year about cadaver shortages, I took notice.
“THEY are inert, smelly and upsetting to look at—it’s a wonder that dead bodies are in such high demand. But for medical students they are an indispensable learning tool,” says the author. But are they? Even now with so much modern technology? Many say yes. Some, however, aren’t so certain. In 2013, the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, both located in Cleveland, Ohio, announced plans to build a joint medical education building. The historic partnership will result in a state-of-the-art facility to the tune of more than eighty million US dollars. The plan is to be at the forefront of technology, a forward-thinking institution of the medical future. There is one thing that this new building will probably not have, however. There will be no cadaver lab for the purpose of human dissection.
As I say in chapter 5 of DSC, the decision by CWRU and CCLCM wasn’t made in a vacuum. A brief search of medical journals reveals a sizzling debate. To quote the title of a 2004 debate forum in The Anatomy Record, ‘To What Extent Is Cadaver Dissection Necessary to Learn Medical Gross Anatomy?’[i] That is, do we need a dead body to prepare medical students for practice? The forum was collegial, but not all discussions and rebuttals have been so friendly. Among medical faculty, the argument is not merely philosophical – and sometimes it simmers with bitter rancour. Human dissection has not, however, always been an element of medical training. In fact, the practice has been fraught almost since the first: a battleground over bodies, from the religious prohibition of the pre-modern period to a ‘gory’ New York City riot in the eighteenth century, when an enraged public rose up against body-snatching anatomists. What do these tensions mean? How does the cadaver relate to conceptions of death, then and now? These questions have to do with more than medicine; they get at the heart of how we deal with death as an event (with a body) and dying as a process (with an overseeing physician) today.
In the first of a series of blog posts for Dittrick Museum, I explained the tension in social terms. The 1832 Anatomy Act in England intended to provide greater access to cadavers for medical science, but it was viewed with enormous suspicion and public outcry. Called the ‘Dead Body Bill’, the ‘Dissecting Bill’ and the ‘Blood-stained Anatomy Act,’ it allowed the unclaimed bodies of paupers to be given to the anatomy schools. The bodies consisted of poor, indigent, trod-upon groups. The 1834 Poor Law that followed added to the unease for the laboring poor in Britain; Peter Bussey, a 19th century Bradford Chartist, who claimed in 1838 that “If they were poor they imprisoned them, then starved them to death, and after they were dead they butchered them.”[ii] Our other posts covered the supposed “positive benefit” such actions were to have, Grave Robbing for the Benefit of the Living, and a bit more about some of the doctors in Buried History (including the infamous Ohioan, Horace Ackley). But in all of these, we see a graduated tension: not whether doctors should dissect, but the ethics of procuring the body. No one wanted to see the remains of a loved one strung up in a student lab (and this, in fact, did happen–one of the driving forces behind changes to the laws). And yet, other attitudes were changing too, and people began to donate their bodies to science at an increasing rate. Surely, between donation and modern means of preservation, we have no need to go hunting grave yards… can there really be a shortage of cadavers to go around?
The funny thing about history is how often it repeats itself. According to the Economist article, growing numbers of medical students has, in fact, off-set the balance. We have a tendency, at times, to consider things only from a Western perspective; when we look globally, we see that more and more people are choosing medical careers worldwide–sometimes in cultures where body donation sits in opposition to religious practice. The solution is not to malign the spiritual or ritual treatment of bodies; it is an important part of cultural and individual processing of death. But of course, this is only one small part of the larger issues surrounding body donation and cadaver availability–some others mentioned by the article include: better identification and so fewer unclaimed bodies, fewer bodies “fit” for dissection (that is, fewer young and healthy persons dying ‘before their time’).[iii]
So where does that leave us? Perhaps the most interesting–and alarming–statistic comes from the body retrieval sector, what Michel Anteby, professor at Harvard Business School, calls “a market for human cadavers in all but name”. [iii] Does that mean we are returning to the practice of paying for cadavers (which is, after all, what supplied the murder trade of Burke and Hare)? Not necessarily. In May 2014, Canada’s Globe and Mail reported that approximately half of Canadian medical schools have cut back on using cadavers, opting for pre-cut body parts and high-tech imaging technology [iv]. And this new technology also has its antecedents. I spoke about SynDaverTM Labs in DSC; the company constructs simulated tissue, organs, or whole bodies for dissection. Their ‘Synthetic Human’ includes skin with fat and fascia, bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, articulating joints, a functioning respiratory system, a complete digestive system, visceral and reproductive organs, and a circulatory system. And yet, simulated cadavers appeared far, far earlier–from the Wax Venus to the papier mache models build by Auzoux in the 19th century [for more, seePaper Woman or my upcoming chapter in Steampunk Guide to Death]. The Independent‘s claim that a “lack of anatomy training could lead to a shortage of surgeons” –or the worry that such shortages might lead to nefarious activity–is probably overstatement. It may be true, indeed, that dissecting models isn’t like the real thing (though Auzoux claimed it was precisely the same). On the other hand, medical schools have adjusted already, along with changing ideas about who dissects and who doesn’t (notably, still a must for surgeons!) And, as the debate surrounding cost of new facilities in medical schools continue, no doubt the profession will continue to be as creative as ever in their solutions.
But not too creative. A body is more than muscle and tissue, meat and bone. As any student of anatomy (or forensic anthropologist) will tell you: this is (or was) a person. The respect given to the cadaver in the years after those “rite of passage” photographs has, at least seemingly, deepened. This is your teacher, your instrument, your body. Protect it, guard it, learn from it. True for all of us, who get but one body–doubly true of the medical doctor in training, who–if he or she is very lucky–will have two.
[i] G. D. Guttmann, R. L. Drake, and R. B. Trelease, ‘To what extent is cadaver dissection necessary to learn medical gross anatomy? A debate forum’, Anatomical Record 281(1): 2–3.
[ii] Knott, John. “Popular Attitudes to Death and Dissection in Early Nineteenth Century Britain: The Anatomy
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?
Rattle his bones over the stones, He’s only a pauper, whom nobody owns. 
Imagine you are a sick pauper living in Cleveland, Ohio in 1855. For shelter and medical attention, you stay at the newly built City Infirmary, where faculty and students of the Cleveland Medical College offer their services. Alas, your illness cannot be cured and you die – friendless and alone. Your body is taken to the Potter’s Field in Woodland Cemetery across town. But there it is not to stay.
This October, the New York Academy of Medicine will host Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500, Guest curated by artist and anatomist Riva Lehrer
On October 18, the NYAM’s second-annual Festival for Medical History and the Arts, “Art, Anatomy, and the Body: Vesalius 500″ will celebrate the 500th birthday of anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Our own Brandy Schillace, research associate and guest curator for the Dittrick, will be one of the hosted speakers! Click here for the full schedule–and see below for a short description.
Vesalius’ groundbreaking De humani corporis fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) of 1543 is a key Renaissance text, one that profoundly changed medical training, anatomical knowledge, and artistic representations of the body, an influence that has persisted over the centuries. The Festival is one of a global series of celebrations of his legacy, and a day-long event will explore the intersection of anatomy and the arts with a vibrant roster of performers and presenters, including Heidi Latsky’s “GIMP” Dance Project; the comics artists of Graphic Medicine; Sander Gilman on posture controlling the unruly body; Alice Dreger on inventing the medical photograph; Bill Hayes on researching hidden histories of medicine; Steven Assael, Ann Fox and Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi on anatomy in contemporary art; Chase Joynt’s Resisterectomy, a meditation on surgery and gender; Brandy Schillace on ambivalent depictions of female anatomy in the 18th century; Lisa Rosner on famous body snatchers Burke and Hare; the art of anatomical atlases with Michael Sappol; medical 3D printing demos by ProofX; anatomical painting directly on skin with Kriota Willberg; Daniel Garrison on translating Vesalius for modern audiences; Jeff Levine and Michael Nevins on revisiting The Fabrica Frontispiece; and many more!
Bodies–they have always been something of a problem. Even when in good working order, the body can be cumbersome, messy, demanding, and unpredictable. It runs down; it gets ill; it needs constant attention. Eventually, the body dies, but these adventures are far from over. Where do you put a dead body? Burial arose in part to combat the spread of disease, but death rituals vary with climate and geography. You can’t bury your dead in the frozen ground of Tibet, nor can you build a pyre where no trees grow for use as fuel. How we deal with bodies is therefore culturally specific, intrinsically personal–and yet, the body is also the epicenter of all medicine, and the medical body has problems all its own.
There are practical concerns. Bodies decay–and quickly. In a new exhibit here at the Dittrick Museum, we will be looking at the work of 18th century artist Jan Van Rymsdyk. He illustrated the anatomies of deceased pregnant women for William Hunter and William Smellie. While sometimes hard to look at, these images are still compelling. The careful renderings were only possible, though, because Van Rymsdyk worked quickly, as famed for his speed as for his remarkable rendering. Even so, steps had to be taken to make the body as stable as possible–wax would be inserted in the veins and other preparations might be made to preserve color and texture. Today, bodies are preserved prior to dissection, but embalming chemicals often discolor the inside of the body (in addition to creating a very unpleasant and unnatural smell). Dissecting these quickly deteriorating remains was so problematic (and containment and storage so hard to come by) that models were made instead of wax or even of papier mache like the Museum’s own Auzoux model (pictured here). And these are merely the physical problems with the medical body–there are also ethical and philosophical ones
In Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930, John Harley Warner and James Edmonson (curator of the Dittrick Museum) talk about medical cadavers and their significance to medical students, who often took photographs of themselves with the bodies they dissected. Such a practice is not allowed today, and is considered a violation of privacy, indecent.
But the history of dissection in its public and private nature goes back much further, to the Father of Dissection, Andreas Vesalius. In 1543, Vesalius conducted a public dissection of the body of Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler, a notorious felon. The bones were re-articulated after, and are still on display. Much later, in the 18th century, the body of Charles Byrne, the “Irish Giant,” was procured against his final wishes by John Hunter, the famed 18th century surgeon. This body, too, remains on display at the Hunterian Museum in London (though it is still much contested). Resistance to–and fascination with–this treatment of remains continues today with the Body Worlds exhibit, a point made eloquently by James T H Connor. At what point does science become spectacle? Or, as a medical school dean recently asked me, has dissection of the cadaver outlived its usefulness?
These are all good questions, and there are no easy answers. What we can learn from medical history, however, is the context and the contours of a long-standing relationship with the organic matter making up our own bodies. From mourning to medical exploration, the body is still primary, a touchstone that we all share. The Dittrick Museum will be looking into the complicated history of anatomy art beginning Jan 20th (and a talk from Lucy Inglis on February 20th). Additionally, Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will be exhibiting a show called DIRGE: Reflections on Life and Death starting in March. We hope that you will join us as we examine our relationship to bodies, in all of their medical and historical (and personal) complexity.
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.