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Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 [Hardcover]

John Harley Warner , James M. Edmonson

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Book Description

May 19 2009
"Cadavers, camera, action!" ( 'The New York Times Book Review' ). From the advent of photography in the 19th and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected: their first patients. Featuring 138 of these historic photographs and illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, 'Dissection' reveals a startling piece of American history. Sherwin Nuland, MD, said this is "a truly unique and important book [that] documents a period in medical education in a way that is matched by no other existing contribution." And Mary Roach saidDissection "is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen - the perfect coffee table book for all the households where I'd most like to be invited for coffee."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Blast Books (May 19 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0922233349
  • ISBN-13: 978-0922233342
  • Product Dimensions: 26.9 x 22.4 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 Kg
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #332,052 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grotesque and Funny Souvenirs of Medical Initiation May 30 2009
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If I could choose to take one class again from back in medical school, it would be an easy choice. I'd do gross anatomy again, the cadaver lab. It was in many ways the most interesting of the courses, learning about the details of the complex cosmos of innards that each one of us carries about. It was a social learning process; my cadaver partners and I were all new to medical school, and we were helping each other in taking apart our specimen, and exposing structures we had never before seen. It was certainly a rite of passage, an initiation that only upcoming doctors got, gaining arcane knowledge that few others needed (or wanted, for that matter). To that end, my gross anatomy lab, with around eighteen tables in it, each containing a tank of formaldehyde into which the cadaver could be lowered at the end of the day's cutting, was a restricted area. No one except us medical students, and our instructors, were supposed to be in there. I did, one time, sneak my wife in, so that she could see where I was spending all that time. There was also a strict rule: there were never to be any cameras in the lab. As far as I know, there never were. Yet this was not always the case, as demonstrated by a strange, morbidly entertaining, and enlightening volume _Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880 - 1930_ (Blast Books) by John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson. Both authors are medical historians, and Edmonson is curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University from which most of these photographs come. The pictures are not anatomical studies, but document students at work (and play) as well as giving visual demonstration of social attitudes within medical education at the time.

There are over a hundred photographs here, laid out in a glossy and handsome volume. Usually the photos were taken by the students themselves, or their professors. The pictures here show students not in candid activity, but posed and ready to be recorded. In groups, one student might have a big volume open, obviously reading about the current exploration, and perhaps reading aloud to the fellows around the table. The cadavers were stolen from graveyards or confiscated by the state because their "class, ethnicity, race, or poverty made them vulnerable to dissection." Their status is indicated in the photographs in different ways. In only some of the photographs of dissected bodies is it possible to tell the race of the person on the table. In one of them, a slogan has been written on the table that indicates by offensive language that all of the cadaver's racial group "smell alike to us". Other tables have been chalked to indicate the sentiment, "He lived for others but died for us," a phrase that seems to have been a standard for these young anatomists. Many of the photos display a disrespect for the cadaver (and Warner makes a correct analogy to lynching photos of the time) that is easily interpreted as racially motivated. Also, however, the photos display the sort of dark humor used by students who were not completely comfortable with what they were doing. A grinning skull atop a skeleton might be equipped with a pipe, or posed with a card-playing skeleton buddy. The most bizarre photos here are classic displays of humor trying to overcome anxiety. It seems that many students found relief and amusement by posing the partially dissected cadavers standing around a live student lying on the table: "A student's dream."

The photos here are strange souvenirs from a distant time. Dissection was even more important in their day than now, although experimental physiology and chemistry were making inroads into the beginning curriculum. Nowadays, not all medical schools have gross anatomy labs, with students learning from pre-dissected specimens or from computer-modeled cadavers. Within the traditional labs, the biggest change is the source of the cadavers. The disassembled bodies in the bizarre, funny, and grotesque pictures in this book belonged to people who never wanted to be there; cadavers now more often come from those who have specifically made the contribution of their own bodies so that future doctors can learn from them. There are rules now that the bodies must be treated with the respect due to the generous donors, but such rules must be superfluous to any medical student who understands the nature of the donation. However, some rules change and still remain the same: Edmonson writes that now, "Photography is expressly forbidden, and rules today often ban cell phones with cameras."
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The quintessential book for everyone who wants to know about how doctors learn(ed) about the human body May 5 2009
By Lana Thompson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is perfect for the research that I am doing on the history of medicine, the history of the body and the history of dissection. I have been reading the Flexner Report which relates the sad state of medicine in the early 20th century. Few medical schools were able to provide bodies for their students in order to learn about anatomy. I think that one must understand the exuberance in being able to overcome the taboos regarding death and nudity. These are the first students who were able to see what the books described. Many morgues have signs that say "here is the place where the dead teach the living." This book has epigraphs that say "She lived for others and died for us." From a social standpoint, the book is instructive: there are few female M.D. medical students. Other than the porter (who was probably the diener), most of the "negroes" are subjects of study. Now, look at pages 58 and 59. The University of Pennsylvania segregated dissecting teams.

I could write about this book all day but instead, I encourage others to get this book. In addition to the photographic value, if you are interested in the social history of medicine, or medical anthropology, this book is a must.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Looking into an avoided topic. May 31 2009
By Robert L. Urban - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an interesting examination of a subject that I'd not read about, and one that I probably would not have chosen to pursue, except that the irreverence of the cover illustration attracted me and aroused my curiosity about this phase of medical training. Once I began to read the text I was quite caught up with the different aspects of this topic and how they have changed. Very thought provoking. Too bad that the picture quality is quite uneven.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The anatomy lab Dec 27 2009
By S. Joseph - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
At Galveston, where I went to Medical School, the gross anatomy lab was about 8 city blocks from the beach and palm trees. In our first lecture, the Professor noted that this was a funeral home, and that anyone taking the cadavers to the beach would be kicked out of the school. You think that's a joke at first, until you get acclimated some weeks later and you start thinking, "hey, I could use some sun. Perhaps Karl (the Cadaver) wants some sun, too..." then the warning pulls you short.

The boundary between proper decathexis so that one can continue to think clearly in an emergency and callousness can be very thin...(no, I never did anything bad. Although I am told that the anatomy lab was a favorite haunt for women dates of male medical students, again because of the macabre aspect.)
13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars At the least I'm glad someone is publishing stuff like this... June 30 2009
By Charlie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I absolutely adore old photographs and paintings of bygone days. Anything that tells a little bit about some aspect of life in the past. When I heard this reviewed as pictures of medical students mugging with their human dissection subjects I couldn't wait to get it. I'm never queasy and often irreverent so I doubted I'd be offended. In addition this book educates about the rather immoral ways of obtaining medical subjects in the past, and I feel its important not to ignore the wrongs of the past. There are many photos from baltimore where many of the subjects of these dissections were black and the phrase that had been chalked on the table in one photo was particularly offensive and educational about the attitudes of many people in the past.
My only problem with this book is that it gets rather dull and repetitive. Lets be honest, it isnt purely an objective analysis of the past that makes photos like this interesting, the subject raises quite a bit of natural (if less than noble) curiosity itself. I really thought the doctors would have been more creative in posing their subjects or themselves. The corpses are often hard to see or so over used that there is not much left to see and the doctors stand the same way again and again. I'm sure this is to be expected but its a bit like seeing tons of posed class pictures of anybody, it get a bit monotonous in spite of the macabre nature of the subject. I wouldn't complain at all except that the book is a bit pricey for something that isn't quite as exciting as it sounds. Still I'm glad I bought it and can definitely understand why it costs so much.
Its also better to buy it on here than your local bookstore like I did. They kept the book behind the counter at my local large bookstore and treated me like I was asking for porn when I asked if they had it.

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