Before Donating Your Body Was a Choice

Items are on display at German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds anatomical exhibition at VDNKh Exhibition Center. The bodies of donors are used for plastination. (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)

In recent years, museums around the world have been repatriating human remains — often gathered during colonial plunder — to their descendants. I myself am guilty of peering at human relics, having visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, where shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon rainforest were once displayed (and have since been removed). 

But what about cadavers used for science? In Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester deftly explains the dark history of obtaining bodies for anatomical study, with some also ending up on public display. “Harriet Cole,” a network of fibers fastened to a blackboard showing the human nervous system, is one of the most famous, receiving so much attention when first displayed in 1893 that Philadelphia physician William Weed van Baun wrote she “had greatness and world-renown forced upon her after her death.” It has been claimed “Harriet” was a black “scrubwoman” who left her body to the anatomist Rufus Weaver. However, once the story of “Harriet” is delved into, it seems unlikely that the body was a willing donation. In this piece, Hester discovers a world of the dead as full of social inequality as that of the living.

On a sweaty Saturday, before social distancing was the law of the land, a group of visitors gathered at Drexel University’s medical campus in Northwest Philadelphia to meet “Harriet.” The preamble to this encounter was a display case holding several unusual and meticulously prepared medical specimens, long used as teaching tools. Like “Harriet,” each had been created in the late 19th century by a star anatomist, Rufus Weaver. Now, behind glass, between the cadaver lab and a bookstore, a segment of intestine and a piece of a spinal cord sit in stillness. A dissected eyeball floats ethereally in century-old liquid, its separated parts looking like a tiny jellyfish, a bit of brittle plastic, a mushroom cap.

The practice of mainly white American physicians honing their skills on the bodies of disenfranchised people is a legacy of slavery, and an imagined racial hierarchy that propped up white supremacy. “It is one of the ironies of medical history that, although Blacks were generally regarded as ‘inferior’ or even ‘subhuman,’ their corpses were considered ‘good enough’ to use in the instruction of human anatomy,” write anthropologists Robert L. Blakely and Judith M. Harrington in Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training. In her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, University of Texas at Austin historian Daina Ramey Berry describes how the cadavers of enslaved people came to hold a “ghost value,” based on their appeal to 19th-century doctors and medical students—a final way to extract work from a person no longer living.

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