A questionable tradition

The dissection photo, now taboo, and its societal implications are explored in a history of the genre.

During the five decades from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, American medical students created a distinctive genre of photograph: the group portrait with cadaver. First popularized in the 1880s, these tableaux commemorate the experience of dissection—what co-author John Harley Warner calls “a harrowing ritual of initiation.” His new book contains roughly 200 such photographs.

Warner, chair of the Section of the History of Medicine at the School of Medicine, describes dissection as central to early medical education, and yet “transgressive, practiced on the social, legal, and moral margins.” He analyzes the photographs to explore societal ambivalence about dissection, gender roles, race, class, and the iconography of the white coat. Warner collaborated with the chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center at Case Western Reserve University to collect the portraits. These photographs proliferated during an era when dissection was performed on paupers, executed criminals, and corpses “resurrected” from graveyards—bodies that were disproportionately black. Some photos convey morbid humor, including pipe-smoking skeletons and propped-up cadavers seemingly dissecting a medical student.

Warner argues that the photographs express a violent impulse in early 20th-century society, with such captions as, “He lived for others. He was killed for US.” By the mid-20th century, bodies used for dissection were increasingly donated to medical schools rather than stolen, and the dissection photograph became taboo. Today, as Warner notes, even the act of dissection is in question: computer simulations may render the gross anatomy lab obsolete.

Bookshelf focuses on books and authors at the School of Medicine.
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