This is Part II of the three-part essay, Sever and Suture: On the History and Future of Anatomical Dissection. Part I and Part III can be found on the Museum Blog.
The following article discusses potentially disturbing subject matter which may not be appropriate for all audiences. The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of
the International Museum of Surgical Science.
Published by Tannaz Motevalli.
Part II: A Brief (and Devastating) History of Cadaver Acquisition
The brief history of cadaver acquisition provided in this essay is quite obviously told from a highly Western lens. Though I’m sure, equally fascinating and complicated, I have not had the chance to research human dissection practices in the global East and South yet. For now, however, we will begin in ancient Greece.
In the first half of the 3rd century BCE, Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos were the first ancient Greek physicians to “perform systematic dissections of human cadavers” (Ghosh, 2015). At the time human dissection was considered morally and religiously taboo, although Herophilus and Erasistratus were provided with particular assurances. Firstly, the Greek rulers of Alexandria were set on turning their city into a critical center for literary and scientific learning and thus, as royal patronage, provided the bodies of executed criminals to the physicians for dissection. Secondly, the general academic attitude of Alexandria encouraged these pioneers of human dissection in the sheer hope of gleaming a portion of their potential success. And yet, after the death of Herophilus and Erasistratus, human dissection disappeared from the pages of ancient Greek science.
The taboos of human dissection in Europe continued largely throughout the Middle Ages due to the establishment of Christianity. The slow rise of human dissection in Europe began again as a result of governmental legalizations between 1283 and 1365. This slow rise, however, was not steady. Many religious figures, such as Pope Boniface VIII, attempted to forbid the manipulation of corpses and human bone collection in reaction to the rising trade of bones from the soldiers killed in the “Holy Wars.” Though this stopped dissection in some European countries, Italy in particular was barely impacted. By the end of the 13th century, the University of Bologna became one of the most popular institutions in Europe, largely due to its practice of human dissection. And so it was in Bologna that the “first officially sanctioned systemic human dissection since Herophilus and Erasistratus” was performed. The person was an executed criminal and “probably a woman.” The dissection was performed in full public display. During this time in Italy, all the public dissections were performed under strict guidelines. These guidelines required the presence of a Lector (lecturer), an Ostensor (who pointed to the part of the body being dissected), and a Sector (surgeon or barber who performed the dissection,) (Ghosh).
As the audiences increased, universities had to accommodate. In 1594 the “first permanent anatomical theatre designed for public anatomical dissections” was built at the University of Padua (Ghosh).
According to an article written by Natalie Zarrelli, public dissections in the early anatomical theatres within Europe included special religious ceremonies before and after the dissection, as a way to pay respects to the dead. Though often solemn, there were some ceremonies which functioned more as celebration, verging on spectacle. Zarrelli cites Roswell Park, author of the 1903 book An Epitome of the History of Medicine, in which Park writes:
“Finally, an entertainment with music, often furnished by itinerant actors, was given…But this folly was gradually discontinued, and by the second half of the sixteenth century public dissection was performed without recourse to such mummeries” (Zarrelli, 2016).
After the 1400s, these specific cadaver ceremony rituals died out. Alongside the public spectacles of human dissection, unofficial dissections began to rise in popularity—hosted in private houses with informal anatomy teachings carried out by a lecturer given to a small group of students.
By the end of the 15th century, human dissection was no longer only found in medicine, suddenly it entered the domain of the arts.
Italian renaissance artists started to perform their own dissections and the great Florentine painter Antonio Pollainolo (1431/1432-1498) dissected many human bodies in order to investigate the muscles and understand the human body in a modern way. Later on Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buanorotti (1475-1564), and Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560) were known to have undertaken detailed anatomical dissections at various points in their career and set new standards in their portrayals of the human figure. Some artists also produced ‘écorchés,’ studies of the peeled away or ripped apart forms of muscles, to explore their potential for purely artistic expression. The majority of the artists however limited their investigations to the surface of the body-the appearances of its musculature, tendons and bones as observed through the skin (Ghosh).
With the need of artists adding to the needs of physicians at the time, cadavers were in such great demand that acquisition often turned to malpractice such as grave-robbing and body-snatching. Both were increasingly common by the 16th century. One of the most well-known anatomists at the time, Andreas Vesalius, was accused, among his counterparts, of having his students steal bodies from their graves. While grave-robbing slowly began to feel normalized, the 16th century Italian public was divided: many citizens raised concerns for their safety and the safety of their dead, while others remained enthusiastic towards the spectacle of public human dissection.
Public human dissection had grown rather popular throughout the rest of Europe at this point, yet each country was managing their own affairs in regards to legislation of cadaver acquisition. “In England, the Murder Act was passed in 1752 which legalized the dissection of the bodies of executed murderers to be dissected in various medical schools for anatomical research and education” (Ghosh). The Murder Act not only attempted to discourage crime amongst the English people, but also managed to provide a legal supply of cadavers for the eager and demanding medical schools. Once the bodies of criminals were legally given over to the hands of anatomy students, many European countries not only followed suit, but also began passing legislation “allowing the use of the unclaimed bodies of ‘paupers,’ inmates of prisons as well as psychiatric and charitable hospitals for dissection in addition to the corpses of executed criminals” (Ghosh).
It was not until the Anatomy Act of 1832, which prohibited the acquisition of the bodies of executed criminals to be used for anatomical dissection, but rather allowed willed body donations, that the history of human dissection began to think of the ethical implications of its past. Though this act was successful in drastically lowering body snatching and grave-robbing rates within England, it did not necessarily help the poor. Around the same time that the Anatomy Act was enacted, the Poor Law Amendment Act (PLAA) of 1834 was established, which took away aid and relief from poor people not living in workhouses at the time. To make up for the expenses once provided by government sanctioned aid or “poor relief,” those running the workhouses took to donating the unclaimed bodies of the poor both living in and outside the workhouses. And so, although the bodies of the executed were now safe from dissection, the poor and working class were suddenly pitted against one another in a poor people’s cadaver trade.
The poor houses were just the beginning of many trends of exploitation and violation of the bodies of the poor, mentally ill, non-white, and enslaved:
In the early years of the 20th century, the poor houses/workhouses began to close down in a number of countries leading to decrease in the availability of unclaimed corpses. Such a transition led to widespread use of the unclaimed bodies of the mentally incapacitated who died in psychiatric asylums…This was followed by exploitation of the marginalised sections of the society including the coloured people and impoverished immigrants. During this time slave owners used to sell the bodies of deceased slaves to medical schools as these slaves were considered to be property of the owners and they considered it right to dispose of this property without the consent of the family (Ghosh, 2015).
In 1942 in Nazi Germany, a legislation was passed to deny the right to claim the bodies of the executed and murdered Poles and Jews by their relatives. Following this legislation, vast numbers of dead bodies were given to medical institutions for dissection straight from concentration camps, prisons, and even psychiatric institutions for anatomical dissections.
The undeniable trend of using the bodies of the criminalized, the racialized and enslaved, and the poor for human dissection throughout the history of anatomy is a distinct reflection of the people who were consistently devalued and dehumanized throughout Western culture and society. For example, in colonial New York, rich whites were allowed to be buried in, around, and underneath churches, while the few free blacks were buried in what was known as the “Negroes Burying Ground, a segregated section of potter’s field” (Sappol, 107). With this racialized land brought racialized body snatching with it. At the time, reports were made of the plunder, stating that “few blacks were buried whose bodies were permitted to remain in the grave…[s]wine have been devouring the entrails and flesh of women, taken out of the grave, which on account of alarm, were left behind…human flesh has been taken up along the docks, sewed up in bags” (107).
It was also extremely common during colonial times, even into the post-Civil War era in the U.S., for the bodies of enslaved people to be taken without consent for medical colleges across the country. Though we do not know much regarding this subject, we do know a little about Grandison Harris and Chris Baker. There is still some debate over whether or not these two men were in fact enslaved; it is known, however, that they were sons of enslaved parents and since one was born into slavery, we can assume they lived as such. According to writer Dolly Stolze, Grandison Harris “started at the Medical College of Georgia (MCG) in 1852 as a slave, but retired as an employee in 1908” (Stolze, 2015). Both Baker and Harris worked for Medical Colleges as “janitors” or “porters” but were in fact used as body snatchers, robbing the graves of enslaved African-Americans (Berry, 2018). In the Old Medical College Building at the MCG, around 10,000 bones were recovered by archaeologists in the 1989 excavations. Many of the bones were cut up and strewn across the basement of the building, some with evidence of dissection and some even had specimen labels still on them. Forensic analysis shows that “77% of the bones were male, and most of the remains belonged to African Americans” (Stolze, 2015). In 1994 at the Medical College in Virginia, where Baker was employed to grave-rob his kin, human remains and old medical trash were discovered in an old well on campus. According to historical records:
Baker stole cadavers from African American cemeteries and purchased [some] from Richmond’s poorhouses. When the students were finished with their cadavers, Baker threw what was left in an old well below East Marshall Street, that became known as the ‘limb pit’” (Stolze, 2015).
As is clear, the history of cadaver acquisition is riddled with a consistent process of dehumanization and exploitation working in tandem with specific systems of oppression such as the African slave trade, Medieval public and poor housing, and the criminal justice systems in Europe and the United States. And though I’m sure there are more examples, it seems to me counterproductive to dwell too much on these many atrocities. Instead, I think it is key that we think constructively about the consequences of these histories and how to implement reparative actions on the still common and necessary practice of human dissection amongst the medical community.
Part III: What Remains… can be found on the Museum Blog.
Berry, Daina Ramey. “Beyond the Slave Trade, the Cadaver Trade.” The New York Times. February 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/cadavers-slavery-medical-schools.html
Ghosh, Sanjib Kumar. “Human Cadaveric Dissection: A Historical Account from Ancient Greece to the Modern Era.” Anatomy & Cell Biology 48.3 (2015): 153–169. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4582158/
Sappol, Michael. A Traffic of Dead Bodies. Princeton University Press, 2002. 106-108.
Stolze, Dolly. “Bodies in the Basement: The Forgotten Stolen Bones of America’s Medical Schools.” Atlas Obscura. January 2015. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/bodies-in-the-basement-the-forgotten-bones-of-america-s-medical-schools
Zarrelli, Natalie. “How the Medical Cadaver Finally Got the Respect it Deserves.” Atlas Obscura. May 2016. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-the-medical-cadaver-finally-got-the-respect-it-deserves
Tannaz Motevalli is a Chicago-based artist, writer, and researcher. She is the current Library Intern at the International Museum of Surgical Science. Her interests include performative writing, the intersections of personal and institutional/systemic histories, and archives as a form of storytelling.