Cadavers work their way under the skin of culture

A Traffic of Dead Bodies
November 8, 2002

Nineteenth-century America was a society on the make and in the making, released from the constraints of old social and administrative disciplines, aspiring to wealth and social status, to gentility and respectability and to the visible symbols of that achievement. As such, it was a society in search of guidelines, of a moral order, receptive to new forms of authority.

Within this cultural ferment, Michael Sappol argues, the practice of anatomy came to occupy a defining role in the making of the American bourgeoisie.

In that century, anatomy moved from the exclusive domain of medicine into popular consciousness: the common unifying concept of the body, of personal identity, became an anatomical one. Two themes dominate this book: the contribution of anatomy to the making of the professional identity of American medicine, and its role in the establishment of American class identity and the modern self. Both originated in the medical practice of dissection, which by the late 18th century had become the training ground of orthodox medicine. Only through dissection did the doctor acquire surgical and diagnostic skills, only dissection furthered medical expertise.

The importance of dissection to modernising medicine and the social and cultural tensions it provoked were first explored in the English context by Ruth Richardson in her excellent Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1988). Her focus was the Anatomy Act of 1832 and the political question of the ownership of a dead body. Sappol's subject is the practice of anatomy itself, its meanings and cultural diffusion. The early chapters of both books work to some extent in parallel, examining the meanings of living and dead bodies and of the act of burial, the medical practice of anatomy and the trade in body-snatching. At the heart of both accounts lies the activity of body-snatching, originally the only way of ensuring a supply of corpses for dissection. Across the states of America, however, official regulation of the trade in cadavers came slowly and piecemeal; Sappol is especially good on the emergence of cadaver acquisition networks. The activity remained controversial for most of the century and was shadowed by class discrimination. The power of the purse could ensure funerary protection - those dissected were generally beyond the indefinable boundaries of the bourgeoisie: blacks, criminals, prostitutes, immigrants, the very poor, the destitute. The dissected were different, dispensable - matter at the service of mind.

Despite this aversion for dissection, anatomy had by the 1840s become a "cultural gold standard" for the American people, a pervasive language of popular culture illustrated, perhaps, by the wig maker who advertised his baldness cure with a detailed anatomical account of the structure and layers of the skin. In the 1830s and 1840s, the medical profession deliberately sought to educate the laity in anatomy: a popular understanding of the practice was essential if their claim to expertise was to be respected and deferred to.

Fortunately, the ground had been broken by the English clergyman William Paley, whose influential Natural Theology (1802) had used anatomical description to encourage a pietistic appreciation of "nature" and "the human frame". Skilled anatomists built on this ground, with popular lectures, books and journals designed to instruct audiences not only in the internal workings of the body, but also to relate bodily dysfunction to adverse moral and intellectual developments in the individual.

Anatomy came to serve a range of purposes in mid- 19th-century America: it was linked to the democratisation of medicine and society, posited as an emancipatory force for women and a force against human enslavement generally, and co-opted to the cause of religion as a weapon against animistic beliefs. By the 1870s, the subject had been integrated in school curricula and drawn into the service of radical egalitarian politics.

The power of anatomy was reflected in its reach: even the botanists and homeopaths absorbed it into their own perspectives. Anatomy, body-snatching and dissection made their way into the literature of sensation and titillation, in the yellow-backed novels that were popular reading. The real purpose of anatomy was finally subverted in the anatomical museum, where sober scientific illustration quickly ceded place to sensationalist and pornographic representation masquerading as anatomical display.

Where Death, Dissection and the Destitute showed how the long shadow of dissection and the fear of pauper burial entrenched itself in English society as a consequence of early anatomical practices, A Traffic of Dead Bodies shows how anatomical concepts simultaneously became absorbed into the very fabric of western culture. It is a powerful and thought-provoking interpretation that enriches our understanding of 19th-century society not simply in America but across the West. Spanning the social range from competitive consumer culture through funerary practices to women's education, popular literature and the visual representation of the body, it is a book that constantly invites the reassessment of cultural phenomena in other countries against the "gold standard" of anatomy in the 19th century. Did the medical profession elsewhere sell anatomy to the people? How else did the anatomical self become established? And did anatomy become a gold standard in Europe also, or was an insecure sense of identity essential to its triumph in America?

Anne Hardy is reader in the history of medicine, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London.

A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America

Author - Michael Sappol
ISBN - 0 691 05925 X
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £24.95
Pages - 430

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