Are We Running Out of Bodies? Dissection and Medicine

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.

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.  Woodcut circa 1530 - 1545
Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.
Woodcut circa 1530 – 1545

“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.

51O9RjsA1UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

dissectionIn 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]

fig26So 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, see Paper 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

[iii] R. MCS. “Why there is a shortage of cadavers” The Economist. Jan 19, 2014.

[iv] Harrah, Scott. “Global Cadaver Shortage & Why Almost Half of Canadian Medical Schools are Cutting Back” The UMHS Endeavor. May 12, 2014.

Living (and Breathing) Museum Research

What is it? Does this inhaler featured in this 1875 trade card reside in the Dittrick’s collections?

When the museum receives donations from the community, sometimes little surprises find their way into unexpected collections. Frequently, we classify artifacts based on the donor’s description and our expectations. Until we dig into their stories for an exhibit, these unexplored artifacts sit on shelves among surgical sets, microscopes, and pharmaceuticals, waiting to be discovered. One such specimen found its way into our work space as we pulled items for a recent installation on Obstetrical Anesthesia from 1850 to 1890.

We were familiar with the Bennett Inhaler (Fig. 1), a handheld device intended to be filled with chloroform for laboring women to self-administer anesthetic. During childbirth, women using this inhaler would lose the ability to hold the item close to their face, their hand would drop, and they were less likely to experience a chloroform overdose. Although we were delighted by this object, there was one problem — it was patented in 1910, outside of our desired time period.

Fig. 1. Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 1.: Bennett Inhaler from the Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad from the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.
Fig. 2: Bennett Inhaler Ad in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine, 1910.

A little digging in an artifact box entitled “Inhalers” turned up this item: a small, hard rubber device with two nozzles, a center cork, and a lid (Fig. 3). Other than being marked “Patented in 1873,” we had little else to go on, except the hope that it was used far earlier than the Bennett Inhaler in obstetrical cases, and could fit in our exhibit.

Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.
Fig. 3: Mystery Inhaler from Dittrick Museum Collections.

The first step was looking through lists of inventions from 1873, published in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office (1874)– a task made significantly easier with digitized records. We searched individual patents for all of the the objects listed as “inhaler,” “respirator,” or “anesthesia,” and compared the drawn plans to our item. Only one stood out as a possibility (Fig. 4).

1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb's Inhaler
Fig. 4: 1873 Patent Illustration for Crumb’s Inhaler
Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb's Inhaler Ad
Fig. 5: 1873 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

William R. Crumb of Buffalo, NY patented an inhaler of a similar shape to the Bennett Inhaler used, not for anesthesia, but as a general means of treating any and all respiratory ailments. An ad in the Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend journal in 1873 claimed the inhaler instantaneously improved catarrh (excessive mucous), bronchitis, asthma, and colds if used in tandem with Crumb’s other product — “Carbolated Chloride of Iodine” as an inhalant (Fig. 5).

As a proprietary medicine salesman, Crumb fashioned himself as an “MD,” to assure customers of his credibility. However, in 1881 the Buffalo Medical College of Physicians revoked his recent degree on the grounds of plagiarism, “having been proven upon examination that the thesis upon which the degree was conferred was written by a Dr. Walton.”

Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb's Inhaler Ad
Fig. 6: 1886 Crumb’s Inhaler Ad

Despite this news (and a move to Ontario), Crumb continued to improve his inhalers and advertised their popularity in later ads showing a model of the inhaler similar to our’s. It featured a lid so customers could easily carry the inhaler in their pocket and sleeker medication chamber (Fig. 6). At this point in our search, we felt more confident that the object in question was one of the 500,000 products W.R. Crumb had peddled by 1886.

Although we couldn’t use the inhaler in our childbirth exhibit, we reunited this object with its story and made our archivist, and future researchers, very happy.


[1] Mattison, Richard V., ed. 1881. The Monthly Review of Pharmacy and Medicine 9(6): 180.
[2] Crumb, W.R. Improvement in Inhalers. U.S. Patent 134858. January 14, 1873.
[3] United States Patent Office. 1874. Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Vol. 5. p. 665.
[4] Crumbs Pocket Inhaler. Haviland, C. A. and Mrs. C. A. Haviland, eds. 1873. Gem of the West and Soldier’s Friend 7(12): 522.
[5] Crumb’s Rubber Pocket Inhaler. 1886. Hall’s Journal of Health 33(12): ix.

About the Authors:

Catherine Osborn, MA is a Research Assistant at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History and the Editorial Associate of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. She enjoys pursuing historical tangents and proving she can find any source online.

Anna Claspy is a summer intern at the Dittrick Museum and a student of history at the College of Wooster. She enjoys causing trouble on social media.

One Lump or Two? Phrenology Diagnosed by the Bump

L0057592 Fowler's phrenological head, Staffordshire, England, 1879-18 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Lorenzo Niles Fowler’s (1811-96) detailed system of phrenology is shown on this phrenological head. Phrenologists believed that the shape and size of various areas of the brain (and therefore the overlying skull) determined personality. For instance, the area under the right eye relates to language and verbal memory; the desire for foods and liquids was thought to be located in front of the right ear.  Fowler’s system, based on his thirty years of research throughout the world, was just one of many. He was an American phrenologist who led a revival in phrenology after its decline in the 1850s. In 1860, Fowler emigrated with his family to the United Kingdom and set upon an ambitious lecture tour. In 1887, Fowler set up the British Phrenological Society, which finally disbanded in 1967. maker: Unknown maker Place made: Staffordshire, England, United Kingdom made: 1879-1896 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Diagnosing by the Bump

Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), proposed that different functions, such as memory, language, emotion, and ability, were situated in specific “organs” of the brain. These portions of the brain would grow or shrink with use, and the changes would appear as bumps or depressions on the skull. Called Phrenology, the practice of “reading” the bumps supposedly allowed a practitioner to assess different abilities and personality traits. It’s a curious idea: what might our own phrenological assessment look like?

Phrenology and the American Dream

Sometimes, we see what we want to see… Americans were very receptive to phrenology when it arrived stateside in 1832. Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) begin a speaking tour, and found a very willing audience. Why? Partly because it fit the “American Dream,” emphasizing the ability to train the mind and rise in society. In other words, despite the bumps you were born with, we could all get better, a kind of rags-to-riches idea very popular even today.

Having Your Head Examined

What does it take to be a phrenology expert? American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson S. Fowler (1809-1887) made and marketed phrenology busts with the important “organs” of the brain mapped out. The Fowlers took the heads on the road in 1834, lecturing for free and examining heads for a fee. They even provided their “patients” with a 175 page manual for improving the brain!

“For thirty years I have studied the Crania and living heads from all parts of the world, and have found in every instance that there is a perfect correspondence between the conformation of the healthy skull of an individual and his known characteristics. To make my observations available I have prepared a Bust of superior form and marked the divisions of the Organs in accordance with my researches and varied experience.” L. N. Fowler.

CollyerHow right was the technique? Well, in Cleveland, Collyer did a reading for Jared Pottre Kirtland (a doctor). Collyer, an itinerant phrenologist in the late1830s, lectured in Cincinnati, where Kirtland was a professor at the Medical College of Ohio. Kirtland evidently attended a lecture by Collyer, followed by a private consultation. The results of this “reading” of Kirtland’s skull are found in a “Phrenologic analysis, showing a delineation of character,” pasted in the back of Collyer’s Manual of phrenology. In general, Kirtland felt that the reading gave accurate results, as indicated by his pencil notations throughout the book. For instance, Kirtland scored high on his ability to remember events (16+: “I recollect events that occurred at four years of age — every battle that Bonaparte fought after his Italian campaign”), but his retention of proper names was poor (6: “Remember the person but soon forget the name”). Of greater importance, Collyer rated Kirtland extremely high in his “love of approbation,” in his sense of “caution,” or carefulness, and in his degree of “conscientiousness.”

Democratic Medicine?

Phrenology was later labeled a “pseudoscience” and its practitioners were attacked as charlatans and fakes. Even so, phrenology helped to move psychological understanding forward in two important ways: 1. it suggested that different parts of the brain did different things and 2. It demonstrated that individual effort could be just as, if not more, important than biological inheritance. On one hand, such ideas had positive consequences: we have learned that different parts of the brain *do* have different tasks (though not the ones the phrenologists expected!) Separating ideas about nature and nurture as is pertained to education also had positive effects. However, phrenology, like physiognomy, frequently reinforced racial and gender stereotypes, privileging white men as superior.

How seriously did people take the “readings”? It has been compared to astrology–sometimes the pronouncements  made sense, sometimes they didn’t. Dr. Kirtland made notes in the margins of his copy of Collyer, suggesting that he, at least, wasn’t entirely sold on the idea!

[1] Collyer, Robert. Manual of phrenology, or, The physiology of the human brain : embracing a full description of the phrenological organs, their exact locations , and the peculiarities of character produced by their various degrees of development and combination. 1838.