With the advent around 1950 of willed body (cadaver) programs for dissection classes in medical schools, a century-long tradition of dissection portraiture—students posing for photographs with their cadavers—passed from the scene in medical education.
Today, out of respect for the individual's contribution of their willed bodies to science, dissection labs in medical schools prohibit photographing bodies with cell phones or cameras to protect the anonymity of the donor. But it was not always this way as medical students traditionally gathered around their cadavers to document this medical school experience.
Until Dissection, Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 by James Edmonson from Case Western Reserve University and John Harley Warner from Yale University was published by Blast Books this month, what happened in dissection classes remained largely behind closed doors, far from the public's view.
"Pupils shall not divulge the secrets of the dissecting room on pain of forfeiting their privileges to the same," writes Warner, quoting a faculty member from the Medical College of Ohio in 1849. Even though strict rules to prevent divulging the secrets of dissection labs existed over time, Edmonson says, cadaver and student photographs are found in the archives of every medical school in the country and were a part of the past medical school culture. These took on the forms of postcards, class portraits, cartes de visite and twisted humorous scenes.
These images commonly capture classmates gathered in front of the camera and behind bodies in incongruous fashion – the broad smiling faces of proud medical students posing among what to some might appear a horrifying and gruesome array of cadavers in varying states of anatomical dissection, explains Edmonson.
"Some are difficult to look at, and one is inclined to turn away," writes Warner. "But without looking we cannot see an uncomfortable past and begin to understand the legacies that American doctors and patients live today."
Documenting the hands-on tradition became part of the rite of passage through medical school. The tradition of documenting this educational experience dates back centuries, with similar experiences found in etchings and Renaissance Italian paintings from the 1500s.
But each body has its own story to tell. Some were paupers who died homeless and without family to bury their remains. Others may have been buried and dug up by grave robbers prevalent during this time period when "supplying bodies for medical schools was a real issue," says Edmonson.
The book's genesis has roots in the collection at Dittrick Medical History Center on the Case Western Reserve campus. The Dittricks' collection was enlarged when Steve Degenaro, a collector from Youngstown, eventually sold 75 postcard images of the students and their cadavers to the center and later about 100 more. In 1999, Edmonson mounted an exhibit called Haunting Images.
"These images are important documents about past attitudes about death, the body, understanding the body and what it is to become a physician," says Edmonson.
An expanded version of Haunting Images, will be mounted as a companion exhibit to Dissection April 3-26 in the Reading Room of Allen Memorial Library.
The exhibit will open with a special lecture by John Warner called, The Image of Modern Medicine: Professional Identity and Visual Culture in America at the Turn of the 20th Century. The opening will be part of the annual meeting of the Cleveland Medical Library Association. The exhibit will run through the annual meeting of the American Association for the History of Medicine, today through April 26, when 300 historians from the United States, Europe and Australia will come to Cleveland.
After the close of the Dittrick showing, the exhibit of now-fragile historical images will begin a tour of medical history centers around the country, including the Warren Museum of Harvard University, the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago.
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