Dissectible Bodies in the Nineteenth-Century: Robbery of African American Graves for Anatomical Dissection in the United States

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Redgate, Isabella
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Mount Saint Vincent University
The first report of human dissection in the United States dates as far back as 1734 when the body of a Native American who, executed for murder, was publicly dissected in Boston.1 The pressing demand for cadavers, however, surfaced in 1762 when medical colleges like the Medical College at the University of Pennsylvania, the Medical College of Philadelphia and King’s College (now Columbia University) began to offer formal human anatomy courses in which dissection was required. In this essay, I will be specifically looking at the controversial origins of anatomical dissections in the United States by focussing on the perception of necessity that influenced the use of African American bodies for science. Due to the ideological systems in place, African American bodies were the most acceptable bodies to gain medical knowledge from because the commodification of their bodies transgressed the line between life and death, which meant that their bodies were often commodified in death as they had been in life. Secondly, science as an “unquestioned prerogative” was not expected to abide by a moral code but instead was expected to breach the “superstitious” notions held by the general American population. To convince the American population of the objective and foundational personality of medical science, the desecration of African American graves and the use of their bodies instead of white bodies for dissection was key.
Anatomical Dissections, African American graves