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Moments in Surgical History |

Anatomical Studies in Antebellum America

Ira M. Rutkow, MD, MPH, DrPH
Arch Surg. 1998;133(12):1372. doi:10-1001/pubs.Arch Surg.-ISSN-0004-0010-133-12-ssh1298.
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FOR PHYSICIANS-TO-BE and surgeons-to-be, an understanding of human anatomy is a fundamental prerequisite of their education and training. Important as dissection is to comprehending the human condition, there existed strong popular prejudice against it in antebellum America. Societal indignation proved a constant deterrent to anatomical instructors and their steady supply of cadavers. With dissection riots occurring intermittently, including the widely reported trashing of surgeon John Davidge's (1768-1829) anatomical theater in Baltimore, Md (1807), medical school faculty members were often forced to calm public opinion. For instance, the physician/surgeons who taught at the Vermont Academy of Medicine, Castleton, disseminated a proclamation in the mid 1820s, declaring, somewhat dubiously, that "bodies disinterred hereabouts would not be used in the department of practical anatomy."

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This intriguing papier-mâché mannequin served American medical students and surgeons as an anatomical model. At a time when human cadavers were scarce and European wax models expensive to import, such a crude educational aid became crucial in a physician/surgeon's training. With an accompanying numbered guide to identify specific body structures, this frightening figure was constructed in the region of Massillon, Ohio (≈1848). (Courtesy of Alex Peck, Antique Scientifica, Charleston, Ill.)

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