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.

Click here to launch a slide show about doctors in training posing with cadavers.

The photographs in the remarkable new book Dissection shocked me, even though I spent a year in anatomy class during medical school. Dissection includes dozens of images of late-19th- and early-20th-century medical students posing, often in comedic manners, with cadavers and skeletons—scenes that, from our modern eye, appear disrespectful and unprofessional. Most disturbing of all are photographs, bearing racist inscriptions, of white medical students dissecting African-American cadavers.

Dissection's compilers, John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson, a historian of medicine and a museum curator, respectively, strive to place the often-jarring images in their proper historical context. Still, one has to wonder if some type of apology to these unwitting participants is in order. It is not the first time that medicine has used the bodies of the poor—especially poor blacks—to advance its agenda.

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This lost genre of photographs, Edmonson explains, dates roughly from 1880 to 1930. The images, which were taken at medical schools across the country, generally display groups of student dissectors posing with their cadavers. At times, the students—who are mostly male but occasionally female—are actively dissecting. Not surprisingly, many of the cadavers look less like human beings than pieces of meat.

But in other images, especially those involving the skeletons that students used to help identify the bones and other landmarks in their cadavers, the dead are in unnatural positions, either by themselves or with students. A cadaver smokes a pipe; skeletons play cards; skeletons hug their dissectors; skeletons are even propped up to appear as though they are dissecting sleeping students.

At times, the students sketched epigraphs onto the dissecting tables. "She lived for others but died for us," wrote students at the Medical Department of the University of Louisville. "Her loss is our gain," reported students at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Students at the same school wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever" on their table. And, perhaps predictably, students at an unknown school hoped that their cadaver would "rest in pieces."

Although there was surely dark humor in these photographs and inscriptions, Warner writes in an essay, they were not candid shots meant primarily to entertain. Indeed, the facial expressions of the participants are often solemn and even reverential at times. It was not uncommon for students to replicate these images on souvenir or holiday greeting cards that they sent to friends and relatives.

How can these photographs be understood? Warner believes that dissection was a "communal rite of passage" for medical students at the turn of the 20th century and the images served as a "professional coming-of-age narrative." This function is made especially clear by a series of "class portraits" in which cadavers appear among dozens of formally attired students. Although the photographs may appear inappropriate to us, Warner argues, they commemorate a bonding experience between student and cadaver that was actually lost after 1930. After that point, he says, a new era of objectivity and detachment entered medical education, ending the earlier emotional attachment to the dissection process.

I dissected my first cadaver in the 1980s—a "politically correct" era. Our introductory anatomy lecture implored us to respect the bodies and even referred to them as our "teachers." The year ended with a memorial service for the now-dissected specimens, another tribute to their memory. Aside from giving our corpses a few silly nicknames, we more or less behaved ourselves.

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