by Sabirah Mahmud
A new lesson is being brought to The Mütter Museum. In this lesson, we delve at the Museum into the history of Human Dissection and discover pretty cool and gory details about this medical innovation.
The lesson ventures into the beginning of human dissection. As dissections were thought to be very taboo due to cultural morals back then, most dissections and observations on anatomy were done on animals. Fun fact, Galen, Greek physician’s own research was based on the anatomy of animals, not humans; however, his research tried to go into the human anatomy. Imagine reading an article about human health to find out ALL of that information was based on animal anatomy. Crazy, right? Nonetheless, science eventually progressed and we started making human observations. Amongst those who started this practice was Andreas Vesalius. He wrote the De humani corporis fabrica libri septem which was one of the first medical journals based on actual human anatomy, not animal anatomy.
Who exactly becomes these specimens that people dissect? At the time, it was mostly those who lacked agency over their lives such as the poor, marginalized, prisoners, and enslaved people. These people were primarily reflected in the works of J. Marion Sims, a progressive gynecologic surgeon. Dr. Sims had performed his surgeries on enslaved women in the Americas. However, something we can ask ourselves is, was the fact he had forced these enslaved women be his subject for his surgeries really worth it for the cause?
In the future, the bodies that become specimens aren’t those who are marginalized or enslaved. Due to the strict laws that follow donating one’s body to science, most dissections of human bodies are now from willed donations. This is shown through one of the Mütter’s most famous exhibits, the body of Henry Eastlack. Henry had suffered from a rare condition and after he passed, he had donated his body to the will of those who wanted to learn more about his condition.
Enough about who becomes these specimens, where did we get them? There are some dark tales as well as some not-so-dark ones about where these bodies are from. Some of these bodies came from those who were “sentenced to science,” blatantly murdering people for this purpose and grave robbing. William S. Forbes, an American physician, was implicated in a scheme involving graverobbers, who took bodies and allegedly sold them to Forbes but according to experts at the Mütter, “there is no evidence that he or his confederates were killing people to sell their bodies to the medical schools.”
An example of the creepy and gory is the tale of William Burke and William Hare. The two had murdered 16 people in Scotland and sold their bodies to the medical schools because of the constant demand for bodies. As this isn’t the best option, the next one was grave robbing which also doesn’t bode well in general. This took place in many ways though. A man by the name of Michael Mastromarino had actually taken bodies from funeral homes and replaced their bones with PVC pipes. These were some of the ways at that time people got these cadavers.
This lesson finishes on an interesting, modern note. For this generation, we have reached and seen the fact these human specimens are now displayed for learning and instruction. This is also the purpose of The Mütter Museum as they hope to always educate the public about the human body. A special example of this learning instruction is shown at this peculiar art exhibit, Body Works Amsterdam, where they quite literally display real human and animal cadavers as art as a way of learning about the human body in a peculiar way. Though this may make most of you question this intent, we have actually gone far from seeing these dissections as taboo to now having them on display for educational purposes.
If you’ve enjoyed this blog, I hope you sign up soon to get your own lesson on The Mütter Museum’s History of Human Dissection. If so, please share it with us and let us know if you enjoyed it as much as we did.
Sabirah Mahmud is a sophomore at the Academy At Palumbo as well as a Teen Ambassador for Philly STAMP representing the Mutter Museum, and the Penn Museum. She enjoys doing Congressional Debate and Declamation Oratory at her school as well as playing the Oboe and Clarinet in her spare time.