Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 Hardcover – May 19 2009
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About the Author
Frank Huisman is a professor in the history of medicine at the University Medical Center Utrecht and Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He also teaches in the Department of History at Maastricht University. He is the author of Stadsbelang en standsbesef and co-editor of Medische geschiedenis in regionaal perspectief. John Harley Warner is Avalon Professor and Chair of the History of Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine and a professor of history and of American studies at Yale University. He is the author of The Therapeutic Perspective and Against the Spirit of System.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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."
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.
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.)
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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