Nowadays before medical students begin their cadaver dissections, they are invited to participate in high-minded ceremonies honoring those whose bodies are soon to be opened, but in the wild and wooly days before the mid-twentieth century, med students lightened this grisly rite of passage with humor, painting macabre slogans on their dissection tables, and sometimes posing the bodies in less-than-reverent situations.
A good starting point for exploring such things is the 2009 publication Dissection: Photographs of a rite of passage in American medicine 1880-1930, by John Harley Warner and James Edmonson, published by Blast Books.
The general phenomenon of anatomy lab photography is thus described by the book’s publisher:
In the 19th and early 20th century, a culture of secrecy surrounded human dissection in medical education. Students could be expelled for divulging the source or the identities of “subjects,” while anatomy professors, demonstrators, and janitors were to guard the dissection room’s secrets-which makes it all the more striking how often medical students documented and commemorated this rite of passage. At the same time that student dissectors were admonished to shield the secrets of the dissecting room, they frequently invited in the eye of the camera to pose with “their” cadavers. For nearly the next half century, through the 1920s, the dissection photo would become one of the most archetypal and ubiquitous forms of medical student portraiture before 1930, yet it vanished almost completely after 1950.
These photographs were made in a surprising variety of forms: class portraits, cartes de visite and postcards, and staged dark humor scenes. Complete with illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, Dissection features 138 extraordinary, rare historic photographs of the unseen world of the rite of passage into the mysteries of medicine.
Most of the pictures posted here — originally from the Dittrick Medical History Center – are from the afore mentioned book. These photos and more info can be found on Science Friday, Discover Magazine, Morbid Anatomy, American Medical News. The last few and more can be found in the online collections of The Burns Archive.
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