On this month's Morbidly Fascinating Page:

Early dissections: the beginning of anatomy labs

In the Morbidly Fascinating Archives

Utrecht Hospital
Mysterious Photos
Ghosts of Alcatraz
Meanings of Symbols on Tombstones
Early Mental Institutions

Medical Dissections Between 1880-1930

DISSECTION by John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson


From INLANDER Urban Weekly:

No matter what’s done, the guy on the table isn’t going to care. The surgery that’s about to be performed can go well, or it can go completely wrong and there won’t be any lawsuit. He’s not going to be concerned about scarring or recovery.

That’s because he’s dead. And someone is about to learn from his cold body.

In Dissection, you’ll take a fascinating peek at the history of Anatomy & Physiology classes from a century ago. And you’ll be thankful that you live now.

“During the nineteenth century, the experience of dissecting a human body was more prominent in the education of American doctors than any time before or since,” says John Harley Warner in his introduction.

Back then, many doctors learned their craft by apprenticeship, and a chance to view the inner workings of the human body was precious. Then, as now, students looked upon cadaver dissection nervously — as they would with any important rite of passage — and professors cautioned them to keep in mind that the body used to be a living human being with loved ones.

To procure bodies, grave-robbing was all too common; at least, until the deceased relative of a former president showed up on a table. Later, unclaimed bodies made their way to A&P classes and the occasional generous donor came under the knife.

As you page through Dissection, several things slowly dawn on you. First, amazement that med school students actually made Christmas and Easter cards and postcards with photos of cadavers in various degrees of flayed. Second, surprise that large numbers of African-American only and women-only medical school classes existed as far back as the late 19th century. And finally, discomfort over how gowns were few, masks were completely lacking, decomposition must’ve been ferocious, and latex hadn’t been invented yet. Nobody was gloved.

Warner and Edmonson point out that several medical school students died of infection contracted from the corpses from which they were learning.

Dissection, then, is not for the faint of heart. But it’s a fascinating peek at our medical past.

See the entire article HERE

Captions are below each photo


(1827) One of the earliest dissection photographs, this one was taken in 1827 at State University (Toland Hall).


(1892) Taking a dead body to the dissection table.

no gloves

(1915) No gloves or masks were used, and only one student was wearing an apron.

In 1915, infection was not widely known. Although bacterial microscopic organisms were first seen in 1670 as movements in a microscope, they were actually discovered in tobacco plants in 1892, but were not more widely known until 1923. The publication of Filterable Viruses (1928), was a collection of essays covering all known viruses at that time in an attempt to educate doctors and the public.


(1910) Even smoking was acceptable at dissections. Cross-contamination was unknown.


(1895) Closeup of dissection.


(1915) At one medical school, chef's hats were required as "sanitation devices."

Early dissections were surprisingly diverse



(1906) Participants in women-only medical school dissection labs.


(1892) African American men also participated in (segregated) medical schools.

Gallows humor

One of the most common coping mechanisms for acutely stressful and morbid medical experiences was dark humor. It was expressed as “we joke to make the dissection less morbid.” Rightfully, the days when “cadaver antics” and “cadaver stories” were common enough to be considered rites of passage have largely dissipated from the modern anatomy lab. But the photos below show examples of when gallows humor was not only accepted, but encouraged.


(1905) In this photo, the dead dissect the living.


(1923) The cadaver is smoking a pipe.


(1908) Even women participated in gallows humor.


(1907) More gallows humor by positioning these bodies to ask: which one is dead?

Answer: both of them.




From The New York Times

What is the future of dissections and anatomy?

Surveys show that today's medical students may spend more than 80 percent less time in dissections than did students in the 1950's. The personnel to teach anatomy courses have declined in parallel: anatomy faculty members are aging, Dr. Dalley said, and fewer classically trained graduate students are available to replace them. In many universities, anatomy departments have been engulfed by other departments in the biological sciences.

A shortage of donated cadavers is not the big problem. Most medical schools receive enough to meet their teaching needs. Anatomical research continues to have practical applications, for example, in the design of new implants or prosthetic devices. Still, startling new discoveries in anatomy are uncommon, and money for research is sparse.

''It seems that anatomy has fewer and fewer advocates,'' Dr. Dalley said.

To supplement dissections, medical schools now routinely use computer-based tools, most often C.T. and M.R.I. scans of living patients. Some programs take advantage of the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project, which provides radiologic scans and actual digitalized photographs of cross sections of a male and female cadaver.

Computer-generated models -- like one program that gives the viewer the illusion of flying through the nooks and crannies of a human skull -- can clarify tiny, convoluted anatomical structures in a way that actual preserved specimens cannot.

But anatomists bristle at any suggestion that either prosections or computer models will make them obsolete.

''It is very definitely not a trend,'' Dr. Dalley said.

Dr. Todd Olson, a professor of anatomy at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, noted, ''There are some excellent computer-based resources, but they are not a replacement for the cadaver.''

See the entire article HERE