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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Monday, January 11, 2010

The Warren Family and Other People’s Bodies

Dr. John Warren (shown here, courtesy of the Countway Medical Library) was the younger brother of the much-disinterred Dr. Joseph Warren. He became a Continental Army surgeon after his brother’s death.

Dr. John Warren didn’t hold with sentimental ideas about preserving the human body. At Harvard he was part of the club of Spunkers, introduced here, who sought corpses for research and practice. And apparently he had a strong opinion about the incident, described yesterday, when soldiers from Woodbridge’s regiment noticed that one of their recently deceased comrades had been dug up.

This is from Dr. Edward Warren’s biography of his father John (which probably dated the event based on Dr. James Thacher’s published journal):

In November, 1775, the body of a soldier was taken from a grave, as was supposed for the purposes of dissection. Much general indignation was excited, and the practice was forbidden for the future, with stern reprobation by the Commander-in-chief. It was done with so little decency and caution, that the empty coffin was left exposed.

It need scarcely be said that it could not have been the work of any of our friends of the Sp——r Club. It must have been the act of a reckless agent or a novice. In cases of this kind, where the necessities of society are in conflict with the law, and with public opinion, the crime consists, like theft among the Spartan boys, not in the deed, but in permitting its discovery.
In other words, Dr. John Warren felt that the real problem was how the grave-robbers had let people see they’d taken the body!

Dr. John Warren himself wrote of the challenges of anatomical training before the war:
In some of the more populous towns students were sometimes indulged with the privilege of examining the bodies of those who had died from any extraordinary diseases, and in a few instances associations were formed for pursuing the business of dissection, where opportunities offered from casualties, or from public executions, for doing it in decency and safety.

But the Revolution was the era to which the first medical school east of Philadelphia owes its birth. The military hospitals of the United States furnished a large field for observation and experiment in the various branches of the healing art, as well as an opportunity for anatomical investigations.
Like many other wars, the Revolutionary War was a boon to medical training. It inured people to death, provided a larger than usual number of anonymous corpses to work on, and gave regimental surgeons and their assistants lots of practice.

Dr. John Warren went on to be a leader in educating and training American doctors. In 1783, he offered a series of anatomical lectures at the house that had belonged to radical leader William Molineux; the tickets for those lectures were engraved by Paul Revere. Later this Warren helped to found the Harvard Medical School.

TOMORROW: Peacetime brings a shortage of corpses. What could Dr. Warren’s son find to practice on?

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