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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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The New York Doctors’ Riot of 1788

In January 2011 the Lancet published a brief article about protests in 1788 over how medical students in New York dug up corpses from the burying-grounds for dissection training.

Through juxtaposition that article suggests that the city’s African-American community, their petitions and newspaper letters ignored, finally rioted over the practice in April 1788. But this New York Magazine article on the same events makes clear that the riot occurred only after “students began digging up white graves, too.”

From the Lancet:
In April, 1788, a group of children playing outside the New York Hospital ventured near [Dr. Richard] Bayley’s rooms where a student named John Hicks was dissecting an arm. Hicks is said to have waved the arm out the window at the children, including one small boy who had recently lost his mother. Hicks supposedly called to the child: “This is your mother’s arm! I just dug it up!” The youngster ran home, his father enlisted help to exhume his wife’s coffin, which was found to be empty—and the riot was on.

Citizens began to mass around the hospital building. Hicks, with other medical students and professors, beat a hasty retreat. By the time the mob broke in, the hospital was abandoned except for [Dr. Wright] Post and four senior medical students, all determined to save a valuable collection of anatomy specimens accumulated over many years. But they were outnumbered, and although not harmed themselves all the specimens were taken and destroyed.

James Thacher, a physician who witnessed the riot, described it in his memoirs: “The concourse assembled on this occasion was immense, and some of the mob having forced their way into the dissecting-room, several human bodies were found in various states of mutilation. Enraged at this discovery, they seized upon the fragments, as heads, legs and arms, and exposed them from the windows and doors to public view, with horrid imprecations.”
Though the article doesn’t note this fact, most of its details about the start of the riot ultimately come from William Alexander Duer’s New-York as it Was, During the Latter Part of the Last Century, published in 1849.

Dr. James Thacher didn’t in fact witness the riot; he was home in Plymouth in 1788. Thacher wrote the passage quoted above for the section on the history of medicine in New York in his American Medical Biography (1828). That book includes the word “memoirs” in its subtitle because it contains memoirs—i.e., profiles—of eminent American physicians.

In that book Thacher described the career of Dr. Richard Bayley, in whose rooms the controversial dissection took place. Not only did Bayley train in Britain, but he returned there in the autumn of 1775 and then came back to America as a British army surgeon. Thacher wrote that taking that position had been “a step of necessity rather than of inclination,” and that Bayley resigned in 1777. Nevertheless, Dr. Bayley stayed in British-occupied New York throughout the war.

Evidently an experienced surgeon (known particularly for his treatment of the croup) was valuable enough to the community that Bayley felt he could stay in New York at the end of the war. His reputation also survived the doctors’ riot, and he became a Columbia University medical professor. Dr. Bayley died in 1801 of yellow fever. (His daughter Elizabeth Ann is better known as Mother Seton.)

TOMORROW: A real eyewitness account from April 1788.

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