Skeleton Crew

Wearing scratchy collars and forced smiles, the men in the antique photograph seem rather stiff. But not as stiff as what's lying before them: a human cadaver, freshly dissected, pulp clinging to bone. A well-appointed gent in a derby holds an amputated arm. Another, the blade they used to saw it off.

It's a repulsive, even criminal image, to late twentieth-century eyes. But in the middle of the nineteenth century, pictures like these--actually class portraits of medical students--were as common as modern snapshots of proud fishermen with their prized catches. Taken at a time when medicine was still shaking off connections to sorcery, the photos conveyed camaraderie between men who literally had to go underground to further their education--to the point of robbing graves to find human specimens to study.

"You might find them eerie and macabre, and you may also at first think, 'Gee, these people must have been really insensitive, and we wouldn't do this kind of thing today,'" Jim Edmonson, curator of the Dittrick Medical Museum at Case Western Reserve University, says of the photos. "But once you understand how important it was for the students to document this central fundamental rite of passage, their creation is less offensive."

Edmonson assembled about 35 such photographs--some taken from the school's collection, others loaned by private collector Steven DeGenaro, a Youngstown respiratory therapist--for the exhibit Haunting Images: Dissection, Photography, and American Medical Students, on display at the Allen Memorial Medical Library adjacent to the museum. Historical perspective tempers the ghastliness of the works, but a sick fascination still prevails. Smirking young men in tuxedos struggle with a skeleton on marble steps; classmates gather 'round a nude male corpse laid out on a stretcher, his head propped up and his glassy eyes staring into the camera.

"I believe it shows how the students were trying to find a way to cope with their anxieties and the ambivalence they felt with dissecting another human being," says Edmonson. He likens the practice to the comic, though cadaverless, skits that medical students of today put on after exams.

Though some of the photographs (including the ol' card-game-with-a-corpse gag) were meant to be funny, the majority went for a dignified feel, that of wisdom hard-won. The clandestine way dissections were conducted, to avoid public and police suspicion, made the "secrets" of human anatomy seem especially privileged.

In Cleveland, public suspicion crested with several "Anatomy Riots." Citizens broke down the doors of Willoughby Medical College in 1843 and the Cleveland Homeopathic Medical College in 1852, and "tore the place apart looking for stolen bodies," says Edmonson. Most of the stolen corpses were those of paupers, "but as soon as the local community suspected medical students of grabbing upstanding citizens of the community, then they got really angry." In 1855, Proctor Thayer, an instructor in the Cleveland Medical College (now CWRU), was arrested along with his students for attempting to steal a body from Woodland Cemetery. The charges were eventually dismissed.

In 1878, a Cincinnati resurrectionist (with the help of a medical school janitor) dug up the freshly entombed body of the son of former President William Henry Harrison. In response, the State of Ohio, in an effort to prevent further body-snatching, ruled that unclaimed corpses could be donated to medical schools for dissection. In the 1950s, CWRU and other schools around the country established their own willed body programs, and held annual services to honor the deceased and inter their remains in common graves. The macabre photographs, however, continued into the 1920s, by which time members of the community--both dead and living--didn't blink an eye.


Haunting Images is on display through May 30 in the Allen Memorial Medical Library on the CWRU campus, 11000 Euclid Avenue, 216-368-3648. Holiday hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, and 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

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