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The Creepy World of Old-School Human Dissection

Medical students have always had to dissect corpses. In the late 1800s, it made for unsettling but great pictures.

Jun 29, 2010 4:07 PMNov 20, 2019 8:30 PM


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Photo Credits: All text by Allison Bond; All images courtesy of Blast Books

When photography became common in the 1880s, many medical students chose to record their medical education on film. One key aspect of that education was human dissections. A collection of these historic pictures has been published in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880-1930 by John Warner and James Edmonson (Blast Books). Here is a selection of the most interesting images from the book.

This photo shows a common medical-student practice of the time: inscribing messages on their dissection tables. The scrawled note on this table at an unidentified school reads, "His Time was Bad, But Ours is WORSE."

Given the outdoor location of this "dissection," along with the students' unusually formal garb, we can be sure this procedure was staged by these students at the University of North Carolina Medical Department, around 1890.

The seated man is the janitor; the overturned bucket he's sitting on was usually kept at the foot of the dissection table, and was used to collect waste.

How's this for a greeting card? The back of this photograph, which was taken at an unidentified school in 1921, reads, "Greetings: --to the dear doctor, from his only son who would become learned in the scientific lore of his profession! Theo A. Walters, March 16th, 1921.

Seeing as these doctors-in-training are cutting up a dead body rather than baking a pizza, it's not entirely clear why they're wearing toques--puffy hats that were popular in France in the 1500s and are still worn by chefs today.

The photo is from an unidentified school and was taken around 1915.

Historically, it was difficult to find bodies for dissection, and procuring corpses for medical education was a controversial process. Often, the only way to obtain bodies was by removing corpses from their graves, an illegal practice known as body-snatching.

This inscription, "Man's Usefulness Endeth not with death," represents one view of the matter. The photo was taken around 1915 at the University of Maryland.

This photograph, taken at the University of Maryland School of Medicine around 1893, features another sardonic inscription on the dissecting table: "A thing-of-beauty-is-a-joy-for-ever."

Photos of dissection seem unlikely to make good gifts. Still, many of these pictures made their way onto greeting cards or postcards--and into the hands of non-physicians. This is a Christmas card of a picture taken around 1920, at another unidentified medical school.

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