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“Pupils shall not divulge the secrets of the dissecting room, on pain of forfeiting their priveleges to the same,” the faculty of the Medical College of Ohio unanimously resolved in 1849. This was a common admonishment to medical students not only at this Cincinatti school but across North America. Anantomy professors persistently lobbied for laws that would give them unclaimed bodies of people who died in hospitals and other institutions, but legislation was spotty and the supply was never enough. To meet the demands of their students, they made arrangements with professional ‘resurrectionists’ who procured recently buried bodies from graveyards.”
Thus John Warner explains the significance of these photos and more in the introduction to Dissection, Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930. For a time, the medical world supported an industry of grave desecration and robbery that supplied students with cadavers for dissection. Those students were required very little classroom training, no more than a few seminars, to complement their work in the lab.
Epigraphs written on dissection tables for these posed tableaux reflected aspects of the mindset that accompanied such activity. “Sometimes the tone was reverential, but more often they expressed a macabre irony or gallows humor.” These messages were transmitted and these photos created in spite of the fact that these students were fully aware of the transgressive nature of what was an “abomination in the popular mind.”
“The maneuvers enacted in the dissection room resemble those of the antimodernist quest in this period for an invigorated sense of self animated by American anxieties about overcivilation and the enervation of modern life. That search was characterized by a yearning for immediate experience; a fascination with the primal, aggressive, and violent; and a conviction that an intensely lived existence required a certain indifference to conventional morality.”
Other notable aspects in these photos include the persistence of cigarette and cigar smoking in these photos, as well as the presence of janitors who worked in the dissection labs. Janitors were brought into the code of silence surrounding the activities there. At least one student was expected to smoke at all times during dissections to help alleve the pain of the overpowering stench of rotting human flesh. There is also a sort of subgenre among these photos, “a student’s dream,” wherin the roles of cadaver and dissector are reversed.