Photography was widely available and affordable by the 1880s which led to the era of dissection room photography. At first glance, these images from a bygone time are gruesome and jarring. Dismantled corpses with a thousand-yard stare looking past the camera while groups of men and women gathered around with tools in their hands, pipes in their mouths, and open anatomy books. Most of these photos were carefully staged and symbolic. For example, a skull and crossbones can sometimes be spotted in the background or chalked onto the rubber aprons of the students. The skull served a memento mori, or reminder that death is ever present, and reflected the student’s own mortality. There is a lot that can be learned from these cultural documents so lets look at a few.
Social Class/Changing Attitudes about Corpses:
Most cadavers in early dissection rooms were either stolen or claimed as property of the state. Many of these people were vulnerable in life and were taken advantage of in death (Warner 16). State and medical schools alike tried to deal with corpses that the public would not protest and those ended up being the bodies of criminals, African Americans, and the homeless. In the past, dissection was seen as a punishment and criminals ended up in the hands of doctors all the time, but as time went on, the impoverished also seemed to be punished. Bone fragments of roughly 200-400 individuals found at the Medical College of Georgia revealed that 79% of them were black (Warner 18). Families of the lower class faced anxieties about their loved ones being stolen under the cover of night. Wealthier families afforded top dollar anti-theft grave accessories as a precaution. Typically public officials only stepped in when a scandal rose up due to grave robbers selling the wrong kind of body (Warner 18). Starting in the late nineteenth century, various anatomy laws were put into place across the states, most indicating that unclaimed bodies could be distributed to medical schools for dissection. In 1930, anatomy acts all but fully eliminated body snatching.
It’s easy to imagine why medical students would use macabre humor to lighten the mood of their, oftentimes, morbid surroundings. It is not uncommon in anatomy photos to find a skeleton with a pipe in it’s mouth, corpses posed to look alive, or, as seen above, students reversing roles. The use of humor probably served as a stress reliever, helping the men and women deal with their own identity struggles and allowed them to detach emotionally from their work.
It is unclear exactly why these photographs were taken, but I imagine some of them served the same purpose of class photos; they documented a rite of passage for the medical students. Most of these photos ended up in-between the pages of textbooks or among the personal belongings of aging physicians. Every now and then, a photo is found that was made into a post card or cartes de visite. They would have been placed in photo albums alongside images of familial normalcy. What would you think if you received such a greeting in the mail?
Check out my other post about the history of anatomy HERE.
Unil Next Time
Warner, John Harley & James M. Edmonson. Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930. Blast Books: New York. Print.