Cover image for A traffic of dead bodies : anatomy and embodied social identity in nineteenth-century America
A traffic of dead bodies : anatomy and embodied social identity in nineteenth-century America
Sappol, Michael.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton : Princeton University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 430 pages : illustrations, portraits ; 23 cm
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RA619 .S37 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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A Traffic of Dead Bodies enters the sphere of bodysnatching medical students, dissection-room pranks, and anatomical fantasy. It shows how nineteenth-century American physicians used anatomy to develop a vital professional identity, while claiming authority over the living and the dead. It also introduces the middle-class women and men, working people, unorthodox healers, cultural radicals, entrepreneurs, and health reformers who resisted and exploited anatomy to articulate their own social identities and visions.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of the American medical profession: a proliferation of practitioners, journals, organizations, sects, and schools. Anatomy lay at the heart of the medical curriculum, allowing American medicine to invest itself with the authority of European science. Anatomists crossed the boundary between life and death, cut into the body, reduced it to its parts, framed it with moral commentary, and represented it theatrically, visually, and textually. Only initiates of the dissecting room could claim the privileged healing status that came with direct knowledge of the body. But anatomy depended on confiscation of the dead--mainly the plundered bodies of African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, and the poor. As black markets in cadavers flourished, so did a cultural obsession with anatomy, an obsession that gave rise to clashes over the legal, social, and moral status of the dead. Ministers praised or denounced anatomy from the pulpit; rioters sacked medical schools; and legislatures passed or repealed laws permitting medical schools to take the bodies of the destitute. Dissection narratives and representations of the anatomical body circulated in new places: schools, dime museums, popular lectures, minstrel shows, and sensationalist novels.

Michael Sappol resurrects this world of graverobbers and anatomical healers, discerning new ligatures among race and gender relations, funerary practices, the formation of the middle-class, and medical professionalization. In the process, he offers an engrossing and surprisingly rich cultural history of nineteenth-century America.

Author Notes

Michael Sappol holds a Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University, where he was a finalist for the Bancroft Dissertation Award and a winner of the Whiting Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Award. He is Curator at the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

Reviews 1

Choice Review

The taboo against desecrating dead bodies is centuries old. Sappol, National Library of Medicine curator/historian, documents an extensively researched history of body-snatching, medical dissection, anatomists, funerary practices, and race and gender relations in 19th-century America. In comparison, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, by Ruth Richardson (1987), presents a broader, European account. As anatomy became the core of the medical curriculum, physicians, armed with this intimate knowledge of the body, were elevated to the privileged status of healers in society. However, the popularity of and demand for anatomy created black markets in cadavers--predominantly the bodies of African Americans and Native Americans, immigrants and the poor--and a cultural upheaval over the legal, social, and moral status of the dead. During this time, anatomical illustrations were popularized in lectures, museum curiosities, exhibitions, minstrel shows, and sensationalist novels, providing the general public with their first glimpses of bodily functions and a crude form of sex education. General readers; faculty; professionals; highly recommended for cultural, social, and medical historians/researchers. P. Wermager University of Hawaii at Manoa

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. 1
1. "The Mysteries of the Dead Body": Death, Embodiment, and Social Identityp. 13
2. "A Genuine Zeal": The Anatomical Era in American Medicinep. 44
3. "Anatomy Is the Charm": Dissection and Medical Identity in Nineteenth-Century Americap. 74
4. "A Traffic of Dead Bodies": The Contested Bioethics of Anatomy in Antebellum Americap. 98
5. "Indebted to the Dissecting Knife": Alternative Medicine and Anatomical Consensus in Antebellum Americap. 136
6. "The House I Live In": Popular Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Antebellum Americap. 168
7. "The Foul Altar of a Dissecting Table": Anatomy, Sex, and Sensationalist Fiction at Mid-Centuryp. 212
8. The Education of Sammy Tubbs: Anatomical Dissection, Minstrelsy, and the Technology of Self-Making in Postbellum Americap. 238
9. "Anatomy Out of Gear": Popular Anatomy at the Margins in Late-Nineteenth-Century Americap. 274
Conclusionp. 313
Notesp. 329
Bibliographyp. 385
Indexp. 423