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Human Dissection: Immortality in the 18th, 19th Century and Beyond

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Michele Dotson

Professor Kelly Lavis

Humanities 2250

October 13, 2016

Human Dissection: Immortality in the 18th, 19th Century and Beyond

When does a person become an object? Some would argue that this takes place when a body becomes so valuable that it might be stolen, traded or sold. The use of dead bodies, cadavers, has always been at the forefront of anatomical knowledge and practice. For a medical professional to learn the skills to become a surgeon, having hands-on knowledge of human anatomy is crucial. While the direct anatomical study of the human body was vital for advancement in medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries, the act of human dissection was considered to be an indignity to the dead, immoral and believed to be a worse punishment than death itself.

Before the middle part of the 16th century, human dissection was rare due to the fact medical theory was based on the idea of the four internal fluids, or humors. In other words,  having detailed knowledge of the human anatomy was unnecessary. (Nuland 125) In the later part of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century, hands-on anatomical dissection in medical education became increasingly popular. (Halperin 489) As anatomical practice became more important for scientific advancement, so did the procurement of human cadavers The law at the time did allow for cadavers of executed felons to be used (Halperin 489). However, with the growing number of medical schools, the need for cadavers from another source became inevitable. Grave robbing and the bodies of dead slaves helped fill the demand. De Costa and Miller give detailed accounts where the cemeteries of the Paupers and the African Americans were easy targets for grave robbing. Many of the dead buried in these cemeteries were not in coffins or winding cloths and quite often buried 3 to 4 per grave site. (292)  Many doctors and students would procure bodies from these graveyards due to the socially marginalized status of those buried there. Post-mortem dissection was considered an indignity to the dead and the fact that those less fortunate from a socioeconomic standpoint were preyed upon is even more demoralizing. Halperin stated, “Dissection represented a gross assault upon the integrity and identity of the body and upon response of the soul, each of which, in other circumstances, would have been carefully fostered.” (Halperin 489)

In the 18th century when anatomical dissections were open to the public, Ghosh stated, “legislators would try to capitalize on the general perception that undergoing dissection was a matter of great dishonor for an individual as the corpse was rendered unrecognizable and denied a conventional funeral.” (Ghosh 160) Consequently, more legislation was passed legalizing the use of the bodies of executed criminals for the purpose of anatomical studies, to the extent that this practice became synonymous with capital punishment. Halperin writes, “To be double-sentenced (i.e., to be hung and then dissected) was viewed as a sentence worse than execution alone.” (489)

Moving to the later part of the 20th century, human dissection and the way in which cadavers were obtained certainly evolved. Initiatives were proposed throughout the world to promote body donation for the purpose of anatomical studies. (Ghosh 163) In 1968 the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA) was passed. Ghosh writes, “UAGA was a turning point in terms of body donation as it established the human body as a property such that a donor’s wish now superseded those of next of kin in court.” (163) Prior to this law, instances of voluntary body donation had been low as “sociocultural prejudice against human dissection remained high.” (Ghosh 169) The UAGA ensured a steady supply of cadavers to the medical schools through body bequest. Right now, body donation is the exclusive source of human cadavers for anatomical studies. (Ghosh 166) Ghosh shares, “the anatomy dissection lab in coherence with the body donation programs has the potential to cultivate humanistic values among medical students which could possible contribute invaluably towards the make of empathetic physicians of tomorrow.” (166)   Although, hours spent on human dissection have been reduced over the past few decades, research findings clearly reflect the importance of dissection in anatomical studies. (Ghosh 166)

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