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

Author: John Harley Warner & James M. Edmonson

Publisher: Blast Books, 2009

208 pp, hardcover, $37.50


Dissection is an elaborate collection of photographs from a bygone era in anatomy, where photography was allowed and encouraged. Today, photography is expressly forbidden in the lab. The book contains a collection of more than 130 photographs that serve not as an anatomical study, but rather documents students’ experiences during their time in the gross anatomy lab. The photos are not candid. Instead, they show students posed, waiting on the photographer to snap the picture. Oftentimes, the photographer was a fellow student or professor, sometimes even the janitor. The authors successfully add historical context to the photos, with well written captions describing the “scene,” as well as the school where the photograph was taken, when available.

Many of the photographs include some type of phrase either added to the dissection table or on the photograph itself. One of the most widely used was “He lived for others, but died for us,” which offers a form of respect for the cadaver. Others are far from reverent and demonstrate offensive language such as noting that all of the cadaver’s racial group “smell alike to us.” Some photographs feature skeletons in contrived poses, such as playing cards, smoking pipes, and even one where the cadavers are propped up as though they are dissecting a sleeping student. Gender biases were also examined, with female-only dissection photographs demonstrating segregation of sexes during their training. Some of the other interesting photographs are presented as Christmas and Easter cards, featuring the dissector and cadaver.

The photographs are definitely the highlight of the book, but the authors also provide well-written insights into the history of dissection and the social attitudes of anatomical education at the time. The book is divided nicely into chapters focusing on the skeleton, teamwork, dark humor, class portraits, and several other interesting topics.

The book tells of a time when dissection was even more important than it is in the digital world of today. It would be a wonderful addition to the library of any anatomist or physician. Furthermore, individuals without a science background will be intrigued by the photographs and stories provided by the authors. Leave the book on your coffee table and it is sure to spur tons of interest and debate.


Reviewer: Charles T. Marshall, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, University of Kentucky Center for Excellence in Rural Health

Review Date: September 2009

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