Photographs show doctors in training posing with cadavers.

Health and medicine explained.
April 24 2009 6:55 AM

Gather 'Round the Cadaver

A new book examines photographs of medical students posing with the bodies they dissected.

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While Warner and Edmonson are right to emphasize that these photographs come from a very different era, I wish they had raised the issue of contemporaneous objections. Did anyone within the medical schools or among laypeople viewing the various holiday cards decry what was happening, suggesting that the cadavers were inappropriately being used as a means to an end? Whatever society believed about the privileges of future doctors and the fate of the poor, did this justify voyeuristic displays of dead human beings in various comical and indecent states?

Of course, one reason that the images may not have raised objections is that most of those being dissected appear to have been African-Americans, while most of the dissectors were white (although students at African-American medical schools like Howard also dissected black cadavers and took photographs). "Unlike bodies in the anatomy laboratories of American medical schools today, not one of them willed him- or herself to end up there," Warner writes. "These cadavers were either stolen from their graves or claimed by the state. … These were people whose class, ethnicity, race or poverty made them vulnerable to dissection."

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Warner rightly makes an analogy to the gruesome lynching photographs of the same era that were also distributed to genteel society through various souvenir cards. In a clever bit of historical detective work, Warner and Edmonson even discover that a particular photographer, G.H. Farnum of Oklahoma, actually took both types of photographs. Some of the dissection images contain racist inscriptions, such as "Sliced Nigger," from the Wake Forest School of Medicine and "All Coons Smell Alike to Us," from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Baltimore.

Warner goes on to cite the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service deliberately withheld treatment for syphilis from poor African-American men from 1932 to 1972. Both Tuskegee and what went on in these anatomy laboratories, he concludes, contribute "to a legacy of distrust against American medical institutions among many people of color."

That is where Dissection leaves things. But I believe the descendants of these anatomical subjects—black and white—deserve some type of apology. Just because we might never identify their actual kin does not render this task unnecessary. Generations of physicians benefited from the use of these bodies—but also chose to treat them in an undignified, and at times repulsive, manner.

I suppose it can be argued that we have had enough apologies from representatives of the medical profession—not only for Tuskegee, the Human Radiation Experiments, and eugenics but most recently for organized medicine's treatment of African-American doctors. Maybe no one is even paying any attention anymore. So here is another suggestion: Every medical school in this country should get a hold of the images in this remarkable volume and show them to incoming students before they set foot in an anatomy lab. The mistakes of their predecessors might impart a needed dose of humility.

Barron H. Lerner is a professor of medicine and population health at the New York University School of Medicine and the author of The Good Doctor: A Father, a Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics.

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