Though it has been more than a half century for most of us, I imagine we can all remember our first time in the gross anatomy dissecting lab like it was yesterday. It is in this setting that retired Academy member Dr. Michael Van Buskirk begins his fascinating book, “Daughter, Doctor, Resurrectionist: A True Story About Medical Body Snatching in 19th Century America.”
As the subtitle implies, this is a factual story about grave robbing and medical education in the 19th century. It is based on an intriguing chapter in the author’s family history, which he grew up hearing. He became determined to learn more about this story and he recorded it in this book. While the tale’s outline is derived from the oral history of relatives, the author and his daughter Sarah conducted extensive research on the subject and the book is meticulously documented.
As I began reading, I wondered why a book about the 19th century would begin in 1991 in the dissecting laboratory of the Indiana University School of Medicine. I found the answer a few pages later. Lying on one of the cold, stainless steel dissecting tables was the 100-year-old cadaver of a woman who was the author’s distant cousin. This woman was the “daughter” of the story. It was her father, the “doctor,” around whom the story revolves.
A grasp of human anatomy has always been fundamental to medical knowledge, and the author provides a succinct history of the problems associated with procuring adequate dissection material over the ages. The story takes us up to the present time, when medical schools are exploring new ways of teaching anatomy. But back in the late 19th century, procurement problems had reached a critical level in the United States. New medical schools were cropping up all over the country, and they all needed anatomical specimens. This demand expanded the ghoulish profession of grave robbing by body snatchers known as resurrectionists.
The story’s protagonist had just completed medical school in Ohio and had taken a position as “demonstrator of anatomy” at a nascent medical school in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Among his responsibilities was the procurement of cadavers for dissection. Some schools were able to obtain specimens from distant locations, while others depended on local procurement (i.e., grave robbing). As long as the bodies came from the “potter’s field,” a cemetery for unidentified and impoverished people, citizens were willing to look the other way. But when it became necessary to utilize elite cemeteries, the problems began.
The author describes in detail the process of grave robbing. The team typically consisted of the anatomy instructor, a couple of medical students, a wagon and driver from the livery stable and the resurrectionist. In the dark, early hours of morning (usually just after the funeral and interment, to ensure fresh tissue) the resurrectionist would place the body in a bag at a predetermined site, where the doctor, students and wagon driver would claim it and take it to the medical school.
All went well for the author’s young relative until it was discovered that the body of a popular, recently deceased citizen of the community was missing. Then a major scandal erupted. The doctor and his students were indicted, and a sensational trial ensued, described in detail in the book. The doctor was acquitted, retried and acquitted again. His luck ran out, however, when a second body went missing. This time, the trial led to the doctor’s conviction.
This scenario, so carefully documented by the author, represents one of many such cases that increasingly led to a recognition for the need to better regulate cadaver procurement. But it was in 1878, when the body of Congressman John Scott Harrison, son of the ninth US president, became a victim of grave robbing, that serious legislation began to be enacted. The author carefully describes the history of this legislation, leading up to our current laws.
The story ends well, with the doctor going on to have a successful practice and becoming a pillar of the community. But his daughter, who was born after the grave robbing saga, was apparently troubled throughout her life by this dark episode in her family’s history. The author wonders if it was that concern or simply her altruistic nature that led his distant relative to make the gift of her body for medical education. The answer will remain unknown, but her story is a fascinating and well-documented part of our medical history. The book is available in hardcover, paperback and eBook on Kindle from Amazon and other sources. I highly recommend it.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about recent books written by ophthalmologists. If you have written a book or know a colleague who has, please let us know so we can share it with our readers.