IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. I want you to picture this. I have a picture for your head: a group of men wearing bowler hats. They are gathered a corpse - a corpse - posing for a camera. And in the background, there's a shadowy figure that is contemplating the human skull he is holding in his hand. This is not a Halloween movie. No. This is just an average day for med student circa 1880, and actually in many places today, because that dissecting table is still a med school rite of passage.

And back in the Victorian Age, it was often documented in photographs. And that scene and many others like it showing med students from 1880 through the 1930s gathered around their flesh-torn cadavers for a photo are - they're all pulled together in a new book that's hard to take your eyes off of. And joining me now to talk more about is one of the coauthors, James Edmonson. He's chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum College of Arts and Sciences. That's at Case Western Reserve University's Allen Memorial Medical Library. He's coauthor of a new book called "Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930." He joins us by phone from Cleveland.

Welcome to the program, Dr. Edmonson.

Dr. JAMES EDMONSON (Curator, Dittrick Medical History Center; Author): Hi, there. Nice to be here.

FLATOW: These are amazing photographs.

Dr. EDMONSON: I concur completely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EDMONSON: To tell the truth, we've always had a few of these photos floating around our place and most other medical museums archives. But about 10 years ago, I got a call from a collector in Youngstown who said he collected these things. And I was intrigued and invited him to bring his collection here. It's about an hour's drive, not too far. And he brought them in and he laid out on the table about 75 of these photos. And I thought, oh, boy. What's going on here?

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. EDMONSON: You see one or two in isolation, you might assume it was a student gag or prank, but you see 75 or 100 or them, and you realize this constitutes a separate form - a genre, if you will - of medical portraiture that was really very much more widespread then I'd ever suspected.

FLATOW: Yeah, because they are all posed, almost identically, around this wooden or some sort of dissecting table with a cadaver laid open in various positions, right? And they're all proud, and there are actually little slogans on the table.

Dr. EDMONSON: Often their names, their states that they hail from and so forth. It's possible to look back in medical iconography and find the precedence for these images. You can go back to the first medical book with a woodcut print in it. It has an anatomy lesson in it. That's the "Fasciculus Medicinae" by Ketham in 1491. And, of course, Vesalius' magnificent "On the Fabric of the Human Body," which first appeared in 1543, has a photo of an anatomy scene. And he's figured front and center, dissecting a cadaver. So the iconographic precedents are there, but the proliferation of photography is what really amazed us.

FLATOW: It's quite interesting. I'm talking with James Edmonson. 1-800-989-8255 is our number if you'd like to join us. Also, we're tweeting - Twittering. You can tweet us at @scifri, @-S-C-I-S-F-R-I - C-I-F-R-I. He - Dr. Edmonson is author of "Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930." You know, it - this does coincide with the first consumer Kodak cameras, does it not?

Dr. EDMONSON: Absolutely. There was a time when Kodak marketed its cameras, fully loaded with film, you'd buy a camera, shoot the film, send the camera and film back to the company. They'd process the film and return the camera to you reloaded with your prints. So it was very - you know, no muss, no fuss. There didn't have to be a, you know, studio-centered photographer.

FLATOW: Their slogan was: You press the button, we do the rest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EDMONSON: And they even, I think in 1898, marketed a camera that printed -produced negatives that were in the same format as postcards. So you can generate your own postcards to stick in the mail.

FLATOW: And you show that in the book, that there are all these postcards that people were sending of cadavers.

Dr. EDMONSON: And they have frankings and stamps marks and inscriptions on - to show that they indeed did go through the mail.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. EDMONSON: And they weren't censored by any postmaster.

FLATOW: Is there still this kind of culture around today?

Dr. EDMONSON: Well, there's a couple of profound watersheds or changes in medical education. And the one that affects this genre of photography is the Willed Body Programs. Before 1960, there was no way to get a body easily, and in many states there weren't laws to regularize the supply of bodies until the 20th century. But that got ironed out, ultimately. But still, there was a shortage of bodies for cadavers in classes. And so they implemented a willed body program, under which middle-class, probably middle-class people were asked to donate their bodies to science, to be used by medical students in an anatomy class. And when you do that, you've got to give people the assurances the dead body's going to be dealt with dignity and respect and honor.

And so the word went out in Cleveland. This happened in about 1950. It happened elsewhere across the country, contemporaneously. Word came out. No more funny stuff, no more photography. And, in fact, if you go to anatomy labs today, you'll often see in signs that say no cell phones. And I don't think it's because they care about people chatting. I think it's because there's cameras built into those phones.

FLATOW: Ah. So it's totally different today.

Dr. EDMONSON: Yeah. There's a complete prescription on photography because they can't predict what the outcome will be of the use of that photo.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And looking at these old photos, what do they tell you about med school itself of those days?

Dr. EDMONSON: Well, they say that this is an absolute central rite of passage for these people. These young people entered medical school as layman, and they exited as physicians. And this was a bonding experience. There was also danger inherent in it. At one point, it was commonplace for professors and students to go out and steal bodies or get them from a class of people known as resurrectionists - people who went to the local potter's field and unearthed the body and brought it back to the school. Probably the most infamous case of that was Burke and Hare in Edinburgh in the 1820s. They were essentially serial murderers who knocked off poor people and brought them to Robert Knox, the professor of anatomy at the med school in Edinburgh. I think one of the only reasons they were found out is that some of the students recognized prostitutes that they've seen earlier in the week.

FLATOW: Oh, my goodness. Wow.

Dr. EDMONSON: And they were ultimately - Hare turned state's evidence. Burke, he swung on a rope. And today, parts of his anatomy, after having being dissected, are in the Royal College of Surgeons Museum in Edinburgh.

FLATOW: Hmm. And so we never knew names of these people.

Dr. EDMONSON: No, no. These people who were dissected were indigents for the most part, people for whom no one came forward to claim their body when they died in the city hospital, and then they were turned over to medical schools.

FLATOW: Wow. Let me get a phone call or two in there. Kevin in San Jose. Hi, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Good afternoon. Thank you very much for the show. I just wanted to relate that my grandfather was the hospital photographer for the (unintelligible) General Hospital during the 1920s and 30s. And I recognize your description of these photos very well, including other ones I won't describe on air.

FLATOW: Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay. We'll leave it at that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EDMONSON: Well, that relationship was certainly something that happened around the country. You know, a lot of these photos are very artfully staged. Clearly, there was a professional hand in there.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. EDMONSON: And we know there were staff photographers at Bellevue Hospital, for example, in New York City and in Philadelphia. So that doesn't surprise me.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. In fact, if you want to see some of these photos from the book, they're on Web site at sciencefriday.com. So you can get just a taste of what the book, "Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930" is about, with James Edmonson. Have people been sending you more photos now?

Dr. EDMONSON: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Are they still out there? Are you getting flooded with them now?

Dr. EDMONSON: Not flooded, but you know what we're getting, is we're getting photos with stories.

FLATOW: Oh, great.

Dr. EDMONSON: As you just heard. The problem with about half or more of the photos that we acquired from this collector was that they were without provenance - provenance meaning the history of ownership or story behind them -and therefore they were kind of orphaned. And one could infer, with some research, the date and locale of the photos, but often that was a challenge.

But most of the photos we're getting from people are - come with very intriguing stories and very specific identification. I have a friend who has a very interesting blog called Morbid Anatomy, Joanna Ebenstein, and she posted something about the book on there. And I got a photo from somebody who had been at Georgetown Medical School in 1971, and that was first of all very late in the scheme of things, and also it looked - I graduated from college in '73 - so I was looking at this picture, and I was seeing my cohorts, and it was really kind of eerie.

FLATOW: Wow, so are you asking people then to send you photos?

Dr. EDMONSON: Be happy to receive them. Certainly we've managed to compile the largest collection of this kind of photo here at the Dittrick at Case Western Reserve. We've got about 350, but you don't really make sense of these pictures until you see them in large groups, and then they fall into typologies and groupings that make sense. And so the more we see constitutes more grist for the historians', you know, analytical process.

FLATOW: Did you find - did you have trouble finding a publisher who would want to just print pictures of dead people?

Dr. EDMONSON: Yes. I initially made some overtures to some university presses, and they said that's really intriguing, and we're sorry we can't help you. I've been told that in the publishing business, it's a real gentlemen's business when they kiss you goodbye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EDMONSON: And so very fortuitously, a dear friend of mine, Gretchen Worden, who was curator of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, who died about five years ago, she had a working relationship with Blast Books, a small press in New York that's run by Laura Lindgren and Ken Swayze.

Laura's a book designer by day, and she's probably designed hundreds of books, beautiful books. When I was there in the fall, she was doing a book for the Holocaust Museum to go with an exhibit called "State of Deception" about Nazi propaganda art. So she does really first-rate work, and I talked to her about taking this on.

She had done two books previously for the Mutter that were beautifully crafted and fairly priced, really art-book-quality production, and she was very intrigued. So that was about two years ago that this process started, and she agreed to take it on as a project, and I was very fortunate as a collaborator to get John Warner, who's chair of history of medicine at Yale.

John brings to this interpretation and analysis of the collection a rich understanding of the American medical past and especially about the formation of professional identity in American medicine.

FLATOW: Well, it's a very well done book, very tastefully done. It's archival, and it's coffee table at the same time.

Dr. EDMONSON: So is Mary Roach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's hard to come up with a good combination like that, but you've done a terrific production. Jim, thank you for taking time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

Dr. EDMONSON: Very pleased to talk to you, thanks.

FLATOW: James Edmonson is the chief curator at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum College of Arts and Sciences, where I'm sure they have all of these things on exhibit, but he's got a new book out called "Dissection: Photographs of A Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930."

Stay with us. Danica McKellar is here. We're going to talk about math, I guess, because that's what she likes to talk about. So we'll take your calls, 1-800-989-8255. Don't go away. We'll be right back after this break.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.