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DISSECTION PHOTOGRAPHS OF A RITE OF PASSAGE IN AMERICAN MEDICINE: 1880-1930 April 4, 2010

Posted by lycan librarian in book reviews, Books and reading.
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     Are you still reeling from the Mutter Museum books and virtual tour? Well, if you are, this next selection will keep you spinning. John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson have compiled a fascinating bit of medical history borrowed from Cleveland’s Western Reserve University’s Dittrick Medical History Center in this rare collection of dissection portraiture. A once common practice, treasured pictures of this type were subsequently hung on living room walls, and shared as post cards, or even Christmas cards. (I thought, while you realize the Lycan Librarian certainly would send such cards, many others probably would not, so one has been included as proof.)

     These photographs tell much about our past, showing scenes from the segregated dissection classes of the late 1800s, to the members of a female seminary studying a human skeleton. At first, I thought the ladies had merely been thrown a bone (pun intended) because they would not have been permitted in the dissection room, but class portraits clearly show that there were women enrolled in them from as early as 1895.  

       In all but a few of the photographs, these guys weren’t even wearing gloves as they poked, prodded, sliced and diced the dead bodies. Ah, how times have changed!Can you even imagine the outrage that would ensue today following the publication of a photo of a class surrounding an amusing looking little fellow propped up in a sitting position with his chest cut open? Of course, the Lycan Librarian plans to donate her body for organs, or whatever use can be found for it, so would gladly volunteer ahead of time to be posed in such a hysterical position.

     My favorite section of the book is the DARK HUMOR chapter that has corpses and skeletons in a number of clever and creative poses. One shining example is entitled “A Student’s Dream” and shows a balding, fully dressed medical student on the dissection table surrounded by jolly looking cadavers — a parody of the serious photos in the book that have captured a living class somberly surrounding their deceased subject of study. (The photo to the right is another version of “A Student’s Dream,” but not the one previously described. It must have been a popular pose among the students, perhaps because their dreams were, indeed, wrought with such images.)

     The quality of this book is fantastic and the photos are large and clear. While some may find this a collection an unsettling bit of history, it is a worthwhile and entertaining testament to the human beast’s curiosity, and to the miraculous discoveries and life-saving advances that are the result of answering the questioning mind’s most challenging queries.

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