Macabre school supplies: 19th century dissection sets

A 19th-century medical student brought to school a number of things, including scientific texts and a hope to one day relieve the suffering of others. The student's most important school supply, however, was a dissecting set. The era's medical curricula emphasized the importance of human dissection in the training of America's young physicians because it allowed doctors to approach the body with greater scientific understanding. With a small wooden box of ivory-handled tools, an aspiring physician hoped to learn the essence of the human body beyond what text alone could teach.

A wooden box filled with various tools that include blades and scissors

As the Revolutionary War drew to a close in 1783, the country looked to mirror its newfound political independence in homegrown medical education. Before the proliferation of American medical schools, aspiring physicians had to travel to Britain or France to learn their profession. America's new interest in training her own physicians coincided with a growing European appreciation for hands-on dissection. Before the late 1700s, medical students rarely performed dissection themselves. Rather, they watched an anatomy professor demonstrate on a cadaver at the front of a lecture hall. In contrast, American medical education came of age in a world that required each student to perform dissection. Physicians of the time felt that dissection was the foundation of medical knowledge. According to surgeon Robert Liston, "it is only when we have acquired dexterity on the dead subject, that we can be justified in interfering with the living."

A wooden box with red lining laying open. The tools it contains are positioned around it, including scalpels and scissors

A 19th-century dissection set usually contained scissors, forceps, hooks, several scalpels, a heavy cartilage knife, and a blowpipe. Each instrument was designed to reveal the internal structures of the human body. For example, dissectors used scalpels and forceps to peel back the skin and blowpipes to inflate structures like the colon to make them easier to see. While surgical instruments of the same period had constructions that allowed for careful and specialized work, dissecting instruments were fewer in number and used more generally. Many instruments of the surgical craft were unnecessary in dissection. The medical student's few instruments enabled cutting through tough tissue and peeling away layers of the body to take stock of its parts.

A lack and white photograph of a group of young men standing behind a table on which is a human body which has been dissected

For much of the 19th century, surgeons performed operations on patients without any kind of anesthesia. Because of the pain patients had to endure, surgeons were trained to work as quickly as possible. On the other hand, anatomical professors encouraged their students to dissect slowly and methodically. Anatomy professor J. P. Judkins described dissection as the most captivating subject in medical study. According to him, dissection "rivits [sic] the attention, and excites the curiosity to know what wonders are contained with in us." The dissecting set allowed a medical student to expose these wonders.

But the dissecting set was not the anatomical student's only school supply. A cadaver was also necessary to perform dissection. However, the public saw dissection as a desecration of the dead and feared it might hinder a spirit's resurrection on Judgment Day. Because of this opposition, medical schools found they had a shortage of cadavers to use in the classroom. Many physicians either resorted to stealing bodies from graves or paying hired "resurrectionists" to do the same. But, if discovered, this theft could potentially result in a riot against the nearest medical institution. For this reason, body-snatchers preferred the graves of the poor and those of enslaved and free blacks. The white middle and upper class seldom objected to the violation of these populations.

A painting of a man touching the arm of a cadaver that lays on a slab. The man looks off as he reached for a tool on the counter next to him.

In this context, the dissecting set took on multiple meanings. It was a tool through which America built a scientifically respectable medical infrastructure. In the hands of curious young medical students, it represented a gateway into the medical profession. To those outside the medical community, the dissection set meant a threat of violation, both of religious beliefs and bodily integrity. Ultimately, the impact of this macabre school supply reached far outside the classroom.

Jenna McCampbell is an intern in the Division of Medicine and Science working with curator Katherine Ott. She is a junior at Smith College majoring in history and computer science.