AUG 01, 2016 6:22 PM PDT

Snatching Bodies For Science

WRITTEN BY: Kara Marker
Are stolen corpses the basis of modern medicine?
In the twenty-first century, millions of medical students across the country learn human anatomy not just from diagrams in a book but from cadavers in a lab. These are the preserved bodies of people who decided before their deaths to donate their bodies to science. Back in the 19th and 20th centuries though, this option was not so popular. How did the science of anatomy exist in those times if no one wanted their bodies to be touched after their death? The answer isn’t pretty.
"Students working in the second dissecting hall around 1900. Located near the present site of Venable Hall, this building was abandoned after Caldwell Hall was occupied in 1912.

Scott Nelson, a recent college grad from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, began medical school in June at the Florida State University College of Medicine. In addition to his passion for human health, Nelson is well-versed in human history. In an incredible research paper Nelson published in Harvard University’s Synthesis, “An Undergraduate Journal of the History of Science,” he unveiled the ugly American history of “body snatching” - the term coined to describe unearthing corpses from their graves in the days following their burial.
Many decades ago, the idea of doctors prodding around in a person’s dead flesh was actually one of the worst fates imaginable for most people. After body snatchers scored a fresh corpse just hours or days following its burial, they could then sell the bodies to medical schools looking for vessels with which to study human anatomy. Then, the professors and students would do the unspeakable: dissect and explore the cadaver without permission from the person or his/her family.
The necessity of anatomy
Why did medical schools in this time need bodies so badly for medical education? If you think about the diagrams and models that exist in current medical education, the specificity of the anatomy depicted in these models had to come from somewhere. The first medical schools in the United States had no models or diagrams with which to teach their students about human anatomy. Nelson said it’s also about “respecting the sanctity of life - being exposed to dead bodies is a rite of passage for medical students, vital for their understanding that their work often determines whether a person lives or dies.”
Dr. Stan Watson, a fellow UNC grad from North Carolina, agrees: “I often wondered what the person’s life was like as I dissected [a cadaver]. It served to deepen my faith that the essence of the person, the human soul, had moved on and only the housing remained.” Watson has been practicing family medicine for over twenty years, and he calls the science of human anatomy the “cornerstone” of the rest of his education in medicine.
Michael Phillips just finished his first year of medical school at East Carolina University Brody School of Medicine in Greenville, North Carolina. He believes that studying anatomy is invaluable in both the education process as well as the application process for young, budding doctors. “A physician who doesn’t know the human anatomy is no more useful than a mechanic who doesn’t know the inner workings of a car,” he said. “It isn’t enough to study in the abstract, because the patients don’t exist in the abstract. They will be flesh and muscle, just like they exist in a cadaver-based anatomy lab.”

“Anatomy and physiology is the single most important aspect of the first two years of medical school training,” Watson confirms. “Without a firm grasp on human anatomy, the subsequent courses in pathophysiology would not make sense.”

The importance of studying anatomy as a medical student was just as clear in the 19th century as it is today for both Watson, an experienced doctor, and Phillips, an up-and-coming professional who has his entire career ahead of him. For 19th century medical schools desiring to send the best, most likely to be successful doctors into the workforce as well as to initially attract the brightest students to their school, offering anatomy courses with real, once-live bodies was the best way to do so. “If they didn’t have enough bodies for dissection, they would most likely have to close the school,” Nelson said. The solution most medical schools arrived at to prevent closure was inevitably, however gruesome, body snatching.
The business of body snatching
For body thieves wishing to make some serious cash in return for delivering fresh bodies to medical schools, their timing had to be just right. Too soon after the burial and they might get caught by any family members lingering around to grieve. Too late and the body will have decomposed to the point of no return. “The most experienced of body snatchers could exhume a body in under an hour,” Nelson said.
In 1831, a set of legislative measures called the Anatomy Acts were put forth to grant permission to local officials to “deliver the bodies of those who would otherwise be buried at the public’s expense,” namely prisoners and other people who died in state facilities. Body snatching was also made illegal under the Anatomy Acts, and a hefty fine was put in place to punish anyone caught in the act. However, accounts of body snatching still continued well into the 20th century.
Body snatching finally diminished with the increasing acceptance of science and medicine that occurred later in the 20th century. Choosing to donate one’s body to science became increasingly common, and the 1968 Uniform Anatomy Gift Act cemented the foundation of this choice.
“The big turning point was during the Civil War,” Nelson said. “Doctors on the battlefield were not equipped to fix bullet wounds and other necessary procedures because of their lack of exposure to dissection and human anatomy during their medical education.” With American soldiers dying at war from wounds that could have been mended by more educated doctors, people started opening their eyes to the importance of using human bodies in medical school.
Nelson stressed the importance of people in the 19th and 20th century learning to not view dissection as desecration. It’s difficult to imagine what the study of anatomy would be like today without dissecting dead bodies, and it’s even harder to imagine what medical education as a whole would be like without anatomy. Many years after completing medical school, Watson says that he still “vividly remembers” his first day working on a human cadaver. “It was difficult at times, but I understood the reason we needed to use real human bodies and not replicas,” he said. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, real concerns from American citizens about the treatment of their bodies after their death kept science from moving forward for a long period of time. Now that medical schools have full access to cadavers for medical study, what kinds of discoveries will they make in the coming years? 

Additional sources: Snatching Bodies, Making Doctors: Stealing black corpses for medical education in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century (May 2015). Synthesis. 6:5-24.

Image: Berryhill, W. Reece, William B. Blythe, and Isaac H. Manning. Medical Education at Chapel Hill: The First Hundred Years. Chapel Hill: UNC Medical Alumni Office, 1979. 
About the Author
  • I am a scientific journalist and enthusiast, especially in the realm of biomedicine. I am passionate about conveying the truth in scientific phenomena and subsequently improving health and public awareness. Sometimes scientific research needs a translator to effectively communicate the scientific jargon present in significant findings. I plan to be that translating communicator, and I hope to decrease the spread of misrepresented scientific phenomena! Check out my science blog:
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