Portraits Capture Life In Dissecting Class Visual explorations of how the human body works have had us riveted since before Leonardo da Vinci sketched the famous Vitruvian man sometime around 1487. That fascination is the focus of what may be one of the most gruesome coffee table books ever.
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Portraits Capture Life In Dissecting Class

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Portraits Capture Life In Dissecting Class

Portraits Capture Life In Dissecting Class

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From the time of Renaissance painting, images of the human body and how it works have had us riveted.

Leonardo da Vinci drew sketches, Rembrandt painted "The Anatomy Lesson" in 1632, and witness one of today's most popular road shows that's traveled to many American cities, Body World.

Now, what we're about to talk about next may not be for little ears. We're offering a friendly warning here. But the human fascination with cadavers may have reached its pitch around the turn of the 20th century. That's the focus of what may be the most gruesome coffee-table book ever, "Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930."

John Warner is one of the co-authors. He's a professor of medical history at Yale, and he joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. JOHN WARNER (Co-author, "Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930"): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: I have to tell you, when I opened this book, I was shocked to see how ubiquitous these images were. It's full of people, nicely dressed, mostly middle-class students gathered around dead bodies, more than 100 such images. Why this fascination?

Mr. WARNER: The photographs are, above all, group portraits. To me, what most draws the notice - I know to anyone who first looks at these photographs, it's probably the body, the cadaver, that draws the notice. But to me, it's the groupings of students.

These are statements about identity and about collective identity. It's an ordeal, for good or bad, that they've gone through together and wanted to commemorate. These were not the kind of photographs that a doctor would, you know, show in later life on the walls of his or her waiting room, but they did sometimes appear in medical school albums.

LYDEN: I understand the medical-school photo, but I'm looking at a Christmas card. There's a picture of a guy working on a cadaver, a medical student, and the message says: I'm awfully busy. My tale will have to be short and snappy. Merry Christmas. So by 1920, these things have entered popular culture.

Mr. WARNER: They were a covert genre of photography, but they weren't kept entirely secret.

LYDEN: It seems as if, virtually, every medical class that ever existed posed with their cadavers. What was going on in their relationship between those who were living and the person who was dead?

Mr. WARNER: Well, that's actually - that relationship is how I first got drawn to this. One thing - in all of the photos of this period, the bodies are the bodies of people who did not will themselves to be there. These were people who were either confiscated by the state, the poor, the marginal, especially African-Americans, people who died in hospitals or poor houses or people who are stolen from their graves by medical students or professional resurrectionists.

LYDEN: Professional resurrectionists? That was actually a job title back then?

Mr. WARNER: It was indeed. They resurrected the bodies from their graves. Some were part-time; some were full-time. In fact, there were sometimes gangs of resurrectionists who vied for control of a particularly good cemetery or burial yard.

LYDEN: On the part of the medical students, their attitude captures my fascination. Virtually every picture of people standing around the cadavers in this book, they write on each medical table like, we have shuffled off his mortal coil, or, he lived for others but died for us, or, a thing of beauty is a joy forever. I mean, were they uncomfortable? What was all the dark humor about?

Mr. WARNER: Well, I think that's exactly it with the dark humor. It was, among other things, a coping mechanism. It was a way of managing their anxiety, and not just the anxiety about dissecting a human body, but in a lot of cases, we know not from the photographs but from their diaries or letters. Their anxieties about the kind of social relations and, really, violence against some communities that the ways they procured bodies involved.

LYDEN: Death is highly medicalized now, something to be avoided if at all possible. When did it change? When did these group portraits stop being taken?

Mr. WARNER: There's, of course, the question, did it ever completely cease? But certainly, they faded away in the 1920s for several different reasons. I think it's clear that the medical profession itself was changing, both in its public image and its sense of self. A code of silence around dissection emerged where medical students were not supposed to talk about feelings, and that mattered.

The source of cadavers changed, too. Probably the 1920s was the end of resurrectionism. I think probably the real change came after the Second World War with a move to donated bodies. The people who medical students dissect now willed themselves to be there. It was voluntary and that makes a profound difference between dissector and dissected.

LYDEN: John Warner is a medical history professor at Yale University and one of the authors of the new book, "Dissection." And I hope we haven't put anyone off their dinner, but for those of you who are curious, you can find out more on our Web site, npr.org.

John Warner, thank you very much.

Mr. WARNER: Thank you for having me.

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