“They Are No Respectors of Identity”: Medical Cadaver Dissection, Power, and Inequality in the United States

John A. Carranza // Western biomedical education has relied on the dissection of human bodies to learn of the intricate processes that make us function. Galen and Andreas Vesalius provided the foundation for examining the body in medical education, and the practice has persisted to today despite the increasing use of technology to replace human cadavers in some medical schools. Dissecting a human body is a tradition that many first-year medical students encounter. Their reaction to dissecting human cadavers is varied. Some medical students are taught to believe that the cadaver before them is their first patient, subject to the same respect and compassion as a living one. Where identifying information about their subject is limited, other students found that naming their cadavers allowed them to think more about the donor’s life. (It should be mentioned that there are personal and cultural beliefs about the appropriateness of naming a body that already had one while living.) Training also imbues the medical student with the new status of “healer” that gives them authority to touch living bodies in their daily work. Despite its uses and meanings to today’s medical education, it is important to consider how inequality and racism was rooted in medical education and was further solidified as medical cadavers reinforced prestige throughout the United States by reinforcing medical knowledge and power.[1]

The American colonies, from 1607 to 1776, had four hundred physicians holding a medical degree from European universities out of a population of three thousand men who identified as doctors. Before the first American medical school was established, physicians began the process of professionalization by forming medical societies and establishing medical museums as spaces for anatomical education. By the time the College of Philadelphia—today the University of Pennsylvania—was established the use of anatomical dissection had migrated to the United States from European universities. The European standard for medical education, which included cadaver dissection, helped to ground American perceptions of acceptable medical knowledge. Furthermore, although the United States had its own population of destitute, the institution of slavery and inequality after emancipation provided a ready source for cadavers.[2]

First year medical students in the Dissecting Room of Laboratory Building. Image courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

Although regulated and ethical methods of obtaining cadavers for dissection exist today, such expectations did not exist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States. Sourcing bodies for dissection was open-ended and sometimes relied upon a vast network of brokers that competed to sell bodies to medical schools in need. Cadavers were subject to ebbs and flows in supply. In some instances, bodies were plentiful, but when they were rare it was the network of brokers that provided their services. In instances where bodies could not be easily procured, medical professionals turned to body snatching. Michael Sappol’s work on the subject has identified medical students’ participation in body snatching as a rite of passage on par with cadaver dissection itself. Competing medical schools in the North throughout the first half of the nineteenth century used cadaver dissection as a means of attracting more students. The competition led to the use of slave bodies from the South, which brokers willingly delivered on. Once the bodies were in the medical school, they had to be dissected soon since methods of preservation had not been fully developed yet.[3]

Preparing cadavers for dissection in medical schools often meant that they were erased of any identity or humanity that they once had. An 1887 newspaper article in the El Paso Times gives the reader a front row seat to how “Janitor Hicks” and “Assistant Mike” prepared cadavers for medical students. Embedded in the description of a typical day, the article relates: “Apparently it did not occur to Hicks or Mike to wonder what name it had borne in life. They are no respectors [sic] of identity.[Emphasis added.]”[4] Even the biological sex of the person was ignored by the two men. This reinforces the sense that the human body after death was not imbued with the same degree of respect and compassion that we are used to today but also might have some implications when considering how they became cadavers for medical schools. From this particular article, we are not told about the social class of the dead, but it is logical to infer that they came from a lower class not subject to the same burial rituals and sense of community that others had that might have provided some sense of protection from brokers.

During the antebellum period, slave bodies at all stages of life were subject to valuation for the economic benefit of slaveholders. Historian Daina Ramey Berry has taken the discussion of valuation further by showing that slaves continued to have monetary values—what she terms “ghost values”—assigned to their bodies after death. The professionalization of medicine and its increasing prestige added a new layer of psychological torment to the abusive nature of slavery. Public executions of slaves provided a ready source for cadavers, and exhumation was a familiar method in which medical schools in the North and South attained bodies. The value of slave bodies could be found in court records and medical school account books. The domestic market for cadavers flourished in the South because of its proximity to slavery. With the cadaver trade in slaves, prices were fixed for the actual bodies, and depending on other terms, the price of packing and shipping the bodies.[5]

The fear of bodysnatching among African American communities remained strong throughout the nineteenth century. One white observer in Mississippi related the “superstitions” of an African American community in an 1886 newspaper article. The article itself implied a community that remained static in the face of a changing nation. Despite the apparent condescension, this reporting relates the anxiety that the black community had toward medical students as body snatchers. Their suspicion of grave robbing incited a “feeling [that] becomes a madness of fear and exaggeration, and nothing can convince them that they err in believing that all medical men must kill…before they can take their degree.” When a group of Spanish medical students happened to stop over in the same town, word got out and the members of the community disappeared. The narrator relates that this reaction is not seen when interacting with fully trained physicians because they have already completed their training. Nevertheless, whether the black community was under threat is uncertain, but merely decades after the Civil War and slavery came to an end it is highly likely that the memory of such activities would have remained with the population.[6]

The medical profession obtained a higher level of prestige as it professionalized, especially throughout the nineteenth century. Doctors’ ability to perform dissections and display their findings not just for medical students, but later for the public helped to define “themselves and their reliable knowledge of the body in opposition to magic, charms, and power…”[7] As a result, the doctors as keepers of this knowledge separated themselves increasingly from those disadvantaged members of society. This separation is especially evident when considering the unequal and discriminatory attitudes toward African American communities before and after slavery in the United States. The history of medical cadaver dissection is fraught with meaning but helps us consider a new way of examining medicine and its relationship with the human body.

[1]Austin D. Williams, Emily E. Greenwald, Rhonda L. Soricelli, and Dennis M. DePace, “Medical Students’ Reactions to Anatomic Dissection and the Phenomenon of Cadaver Naming,” Anatomical Sciences Education7, no. 3 (2014): 172; Daniel A. Segal, “A Patient So Dead: American Medical Students and Their Cadavers,” Anthropological Quarterly 61, no. 1 (1988): 22.

[2]Martin Kaufman, American Medical Education: The Formative Years, 1765-1910(Westport: Greenwood Press, 1976), 10-13; Stephen C. Kenny, “The Development of Medical Museums in the Antebellum American South: Slave Bodies in Networks of Anatomical Exchange,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87, no. 1 (2013): 38-39.

[3]Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 85, 111-116.

[4]El Paso Times. (El Paso, Tex.), Vol. Seventh Year, No. 101, Ed. 1 Tuesday, May 3, 1887,newspaper, May 3, 1887; El Paso, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth504247/m1/3/?q=cadaver+dissection: accessed December 5, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Abilene Library Consortium.

[5]Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation(Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 95, 97-98, 100, 173-177.

[6]The Galveston Daily News. (Galveston, Tex.), Vol. 44, No. 268, Ed. 1 Sunday, January 17, 1886, newspaper, January 17, 1886; Galveston, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth462585/m1/10/?q=cadaver+dissection: accessed December 5, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Abilene Library Consortium.

[7]Sappol, 75-76.

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