From The New England Journal of Medicine
"Anatomy is the charm," observed Jerome Van Crowninshield Smith, professor of anatomy at the Berkshire Medical Institution in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. In 1825 Smith proposed to Harvard anatomist John Collin Warren that together they petition Massachusetts legislators for a law that would give medical anatomists access to the bodies of those unfortunate enough to die in public almshouses and state prisons. The Massachusetts legislature passed an anatomy act in 1831, but the law aimed at ending the "resurrection" of cadavers did not resolve the persistent shortage of material for anatomical dissection faced by 19th-century medical educators and their students. In this groundbreaking new book, Sappol, a historian and curator at the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, explores how professors and body snatchers, patients and physicians, and politicians and the public confronted the anatomical dilemma and forged a new consensus about the body and its place in 19th-century American culture. Body snatching has, of course, had its historians. Stories about the 1788 Doctors' Mob in New York City (the angry mob of 5000 New Yorkers searching for medical students, physicians, and cadavers dispersed only after the governor called out the armed militia), the 1824 riot against the Yale medical department (spurred by the discovery of the partially dissected body of the recently deceased daughter of a West Haven farmer in the anatomy rooms), and the 1878 Harrison scandal in Cincinnati (when the body of John Scott Harrison, the recently deceased son of former president William Henry Harrison and father of president-to-be Benjamin Harrison, turned up in the dissecting room of the Medical College of Ohio) have long been a staple of American medical history and medical school anatomy courses. One of Sappol's great accomplishments in this dazzling book is his creation of a new lens to view these well-known -- and some lesser-known -- episodes. It is as though we see them, and more important, understand them for the first time. The anatomical perspective, Sappol suggests, urges a serious reconsideration of the boundaries of professional medicine and popular culture in the 19th century. More than that, he seeks to explain how 19th-century anatomical view of the body led to the view of the body we know today. Crucial to Sappol's argument is a redefining of what counted as anatomy in 19th-century medicine. With considerable verve and penetration, he explores orthodox anatomy in American medical education, advancing the claim that dissection and membership in the male fraternity of dissectors was critical to the formation of professional identity and legitimacy. Not surprisingly, the entry of women into the medical profession at mid-century challenged the emerging fraternal order and compelled women's medical schools to pursue the anatomical project with considerable delicacy. Sappol analyzes this sexual dimension, as well as the ways in which alternative healers -- Thomsonians, homeopaths, and others -- incorporated and appropriated anatomical practice and knowledge in their efforts to achieve cultural authority in the crowded medical marketplace of mid-19th-century America. Sappol does not confine his analysis to professional practices and discourses but expansively scrutinizes popular anatomy in textbooks, children's literature, dime museums, and sensationalist fiction. Several chapters are devoted to the popular pursuit of anatomy in the middle decades of the 19th century, including a nuanced reading of George Lippard's sensational gothic extravaganza The Quaker City, or the Monks of Monk Hall (1845). The best-selling novel of its day (before the publication in 1852 of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), The Quaker City features a delirious vision of murder, premature burial, body snatching, dissection, and sexuality, which supports Sappol's claims of a widespread cultural fascination with dissection and its discontents. He also resurrects the little-known and often overlooked anatomical museums of mid-19th-century America, arguing that these marginal urban enterprises represented lay efforts to harness anatomical knowledge (especially with respect to medical museums whose audiences were restricted to professionals) to the cultural project of social reform and self-making. Throughout the book, in his analysis of both professional and public spheres, Sappol notes the sexual, racial, and class dimensions that informed anatomical practice and the pursuit of anatomical knowledge. By the turn of the 20th century, anatomy had lost much of its momentum as a science and social agenda. If anatomical dissection today remains an integral part of medical education and a rite of passage, it does so without the cultural charge it once possessed for medical students and their professors. Nonetheless, in his characteristically provocative conclusion, Sappol reminds us that we continue to pursue the construction and negotiation of the boundaries of our bodies and our selves. Molecular biology and neuroscience offer perhaps the most obvious and compelling directions for this pursuit. We can understand this process better in the light of Sappol's extraordinary evocation of 19th-century anatomy and American culture. Susan E. Lederer, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2002 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
"A groundbreaking new book. . . . One of Sappol's great accomplishments in this dazzling book is his creation of a new lens to view . . . well-known--and some lesser-known--episodes [in medical history]. . . . With considerable verve and penetration, he explores orthodox anatomy in American medical education. . . . Sappol reminds us that we continue to pursue the construction and negotiation of the boundaries of our bodies and our selves. . . . We can understand this process better in the light of Sappol's extraordinary evocation of 19th-century anatomy and American culture."--Susan E. Lederer, New England Journal of Medicine
"A powerful and thought-provoking interpretation that enriches our understanding of 19th-century society not simply in America but across the West."--Anne Hardy, Times Higher Education Supplement
"[The] achievement of this book [is its] laying out the importance, scope, structure, and sloughs of the anatomical metropolis in which American medicine developed."--Phillip J. Pauly, Journal of the American Medical Association
"A Traffic of Dead Bodies
offers surprising new insights for both medical and cultural historians. It combines an innovative account of anatomy in American medicine with an unprecedented exploration of the dissected body in American culture, from common schools to pulp fiction and Bowery wax museums."--Martin S. Pernick, Journal of the History of Medicine
"A Traffic of Dead Bodies
is a major achievement. It is an empirically rich and creatively theorized book that resists easy classification."--Thomas R. Cole, Journal of American History
"In his well-crafted and superbly researched book, Sappol takes us on a fascinating and morbid journey through the powerful and expansive world of anatomical medicine, foregrounding its centrality to the making of modernity. . . . It is an impressive and engaging work of cultural history that greatly enhances our understanding of society and medicine in America's long nineteenth century."--Alexandra Minna Stern, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography