J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Difficulties of Medical Training in 1796

I’ve already quoted Dr. Edward Warren (1804-1878) on what his father and professor, Dr. John Warren, thought about digging up bodies to for anatomy study: socially awkward but medically necessary.

Here’s a recollection from Edward’s older brother, Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856, shown here courtesy of Countway Medical Library), about studying medicine at Harvard under his father at the end of the eighteenth century:

No occurrences in the course of my life have given me more trouble and anxiety than the procuring of subjects for dissection. My father began to dissect early in the Revolutionary War. He obtained the office of army surgeon when the Revolution broke out, and was able to procure a multitude of subjects from having access to the bodies of soldiers who had died without relations. In consequence of these opportunities he began to lecture on anatomy in 1781.

After the peace there was great difficulty in getting subjects. Bodies of executed criminals were occasionally procured, and sometimes a pauper subject was obtained, averaging not more than two a year. While in college I began the business of getting subjects in 1796.

Having understood that a man without relations was to be buried in the North Burying-Ground, I formed a party, of which Dr. William Ingalls was one. He was a physician of Boston at that time. We reached the spot at ten o’clock at night. The night was rather light. We soon found the grave; but, after proceeding a while, were led to suspect a mistake, and went to another place. Here we found our selves wrong, and returned to the first; and, having set watches, we proceeded rapidly, uncovering the coffin by breaking it open.

We took out the body of a stout young man, put it in a bag, and carried it to the burying-ground wall. As we were going to lift it over and put it in the chaise, we saw a man walking along the edge of the wall outside, smoking. A part of us disappeared.

One of the company met him, stopped him from coming on, and entered into conversation with him. This individual of our party affected to be intoxicated, while he contrived to get into a quarrel with the stranger. After he had succeeded in doing this, another of the party, approaching, pretended to side with the stranger, and ordered the other to go about his business. Taking the stranger by the arm, he led him off in a different direction to some distance; then left him, and returned to the burying-ground.

The body was then quickly taken up, and packed in the chaise between two of the parties, who drove off to Cambridge with their booty. Two of us staid to fill the grave: but my companion, being alarmed, soon left the burying-ground; and I, knowing the importance of covering up the grave and effacing the vestiges of our labor, remained, with no very agreeable sensations, to finish the work.
I love the image of Warren, age eighteen, hurrying to refill this anonymous man’s grave while fuming at his so-called friends who’d left him to do all that work himself. But he’d no doubt heard his father speak of the necessity of filling in the hole so no one can tell you’ve taken the body.
However, I got off without further interruption; drove, with the tools, to Cambridge; and arrived there just before daylight.

When my father came up in the morning to lecture, and found that I had been engaged in this scrape, he was very much alarmed, but when the body was uncovered, and he saw what a fine, healthy subject it was, he seemed to be as much pleased as I ever saw him. This body lasted the course through.
Harvard Medical School’s Anatomical Gift Program is the legal and worthy replacement for the Warrens’ early efforts.

TOMORROW: CSI: Colonial Boston takes an excursion to New Jersey.


John L. Smith said...

The whole idea of medical students and professors having to engage in grave robbing to, ironically, learn more about anatomy in order to help mankind is just an example of how unfortunate public opinion was about the subject and the need. This story reminds me of the "graves" that have been found under Benjamin Franklin's house in London, a place Ben shared with a similar doctor with similar needs.

DAG said...

We all must remember that the soldiers had already given the ultimate sacrifice for their cause. Imagine the horror of the families upon finding their loved ones graves dug up and coffins lying open.
Understandably the medical profession needs cadavers to further their knowledge, understanding needs to be a two way street. Grave robbing is still robbing to those affected families.

Charles Bahne said...

This was still an issue in Boston in 1849. It is discussed in some books about the Parkman murder case. The janitor at Harvard Medical School was responsible for procuring the cadavers for dissection. He would go around the less savory sections of the city and offer people money for any corpses they "happened" to have on hand.