News at Medicine - November 2010 - Inside the dissection room

Inside the dissection room
November 22, 2010
Postcards featuring medical students posing with cadavers were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Using over 100 of these postcards in an illustrated lecture, Dr. James M. Edmonson delivered the 2010 Dr. Nigel Rusted Lecture in the Medical Humanities on Nov. 19.
As the chief curator of the Dittrick Medical History Centre and Museum of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Dr. Edmonson first came in contact with these postcards when a collector in Ohio lent him about 100 of them. “Our feeling was that these were important social documents, so we bought this collection.”

The collection later expanded when the same collector returned with another 150 postcards.

“I thought the postcards would be a worthy book project,” said Dr. Edmonson. “It was a tough sell but eventually Dr. John Harley Warner of Yale University and I co-authored Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930.”

In his lecture, Dr. Edmonson explained that the images in these photographs were not candid but staged. “The irony is that dissection was done in secret but revealed in photos. The images become an underground genre because they were linked to grave robbing.”

There was also an element of dark humour with the photographs, with epigraphs such as “Such the vultures love” and “His loss is our gain” included.

Dissection was a shared experience sanctioned by tradition, and the shared danger intensified bonding among medical students. As the chief rite of passage in medicine in the U.S., class photos were often taken with the cadaver in clear view.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine
1880-1930 featuring 138 rare historic photographs is published by Blast Books.

Dr. Nigel Rusted and Dr. James Edmonson.