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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 October; 54(4): 540–541.
PMCID: PMC2948695

Book Reviews

Dissection: photographs of a rite of passage in American medicine: 1880–1930
Reviewed by Richard Barnett

John Harley Warner and James M Edmonson,  Dissection: photographs of a rite of passage in American medicine: 1880–1930,  New York,  Blast Books,  2009, pp.  208, illus., $50.00 (hardback  978-0-922-33342). 

Generously proportioned, sumptuously produced, replete with crisp photographic reproductions—at first glance, Dissection could be mistaken for an expensive exhibition catalogue. But this is not a book to leave lying around on a coffee table. Warner and Edmonson have brought together more than a hundred photographs taken in American medical schools between 1880 and 1930, photographs that capture the strange, complex relationship between medical students and the cadavers they dissected.

The images in Dissection are divided into six chapters—‘Teamwork’; ‘Epigraphs’; ‘Circulation’; ‘Skeleton’; ‘Dark Humor’; ‘Class Portraits’ and ‘The White Coat’—and bookended with excellent critical essays by Warner and Edmonson. Warner's essay, on the relationship between photography, medicine and American culture, is typically lucid, accessible and smart. By the 1880s dissection was a well-established part of Western medical training, and acknowledged to be as much a moral education as a way of gaining knowledge about the inner structures of the human body. Warner argues that these images present dissection as a rite of passage for medical students, both an assertion of collective character and a focus of student camaraderie. But he also draws out a tension running through these images and our response to them, between the secrecy surrounding medical dissection (a taboo often made concrete in medical school regulations) and the decision to record, disseminate, even celebrate it in photographs.

Edmonson's essay discusses the challenges of curating these images—taken from a growing collection held at the Dittrick Medical History Centre in Cleveland, Ohio—for a modern audience. He sees them not as an isolated clinical curiosity but as part of a long-established historical genre, one that drew inspiration from Renaissance anatomical atlases and Rembrandt's The anatomy lesson of Dr Tulp (1632). He also highlights the ways in which photography was taken up in this period as a clinical tool, a seemingly objective way of capturing what is fleeting, what might escape mere human attention, what might or might not actually be there. Photography is a technology that pretends to permanence and in doing so alludes to mortality, a point driven home by the unheimlich observation that all who appear in these photographs, the dissectors and the dissected, are now dead. Some photographs play with this irresistible ambiguity: in ‘A Student's Dream’, a living dissector lies on the stainless steel table, with four or five cadavers in smocks propped around him.

Most striking, however, are the power relations frozen in these images. None of these cadavers chose, while living, to donate their bodies for dissection: all were snatched from graves or seized as paupers. “In all likelihood,” Warner notes, “every single instance required confiscation of the dead” (p. 15). The bodies are nameless, almost certainly unnameable, but the students seem desperate to identify themselves, with names chalked on blackboards, painted on aprons or scribbled on the backs and mounts of the photographs themselves. And the practices associated with the images are as arresting as the images themselves. Initially formal portraits taken by commercial firms (and occasionally by pioneer photographers like Eadweard Muybridge), later examples are more informal, taken by students themselves as cheaper cameras came on to the market. Though not for public display in the same way as certificates or diplomas, they were mounted in family albums, reproduced in college yearbooks, and—incredibly—used as greetings cards at Christmas and Easter.

Warner and Edmonson have produced a skilfully edited, beautifully presented volume, a disquieting contribution to medicine's cultural history, and an excellent resource for teaching. It is hard not to read overtones of vanitas into these images of young men and women who (like the ‘Three Living and the Three Dead’ of medieval folklore) find themselves face to face with an incarnation of their own death. One or two students seem painfully aware of this; the majority are, or affect to be, indifferent.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press