“How Cadaver Study Has Influenced the University of Nebraska”

Haley Huebert, History 250: The Historian Craft, Fall 2019

Studying the human body is a practice vital to the field of medicine, or any another health related field. The only way to truly understand the way that the body works is by a careful study of its components. Without the study of anatomy doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals would be unable to properly and safely care for their patients. As medicine has evolved, the study of anatomy has also shifted and evolved. Methods used by students and professors have shifted and adapted to the needs of the medical profession as well as societal standards. Since the conception of the medical college on the University of Nebraska’s campus in 1883, anatomy has been a course of study on campus.[1] Today the program has grown to serve the needs of a very diverse group of students with differing interests as well as goals. The anatomy program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has grown and adapted throughout the history of the university in response to the needs of the its students, the funding and support of university leaders, and the standards held by society on the practice of studying human cadavers, eventually becoming a symbol of prestige for the university.

In the earliest years of the College of Medicine, funding was very scarce. Professors within the College of Medicine received no compensation beyond traveling expenses and taught simply because they saw the importance of and need for well-trained medical professionals.[2] Included in the first curriculum was the study of physiology and of course anatomy. A. R. Mitchell, the first dean of the college, gave 50 lectures on anatomy during the course of the first year and held 15 clinics.[3] Requests for materials were made, so that the students would have the devices necessary for a thorough understanding of the human body, however, the instructors often procured materials themselves often with “some trouble, and considerable expense.”[4] Physician F. B. Righter in order to help his students comprehend the female reproductive system requested the Board of Regents grant him funding to purchase, “the female pelvis with ligaments attached…and charts to illustrate the female organs of generation....”[5] In a budget report from the first years of the college’s operation, important tools for anatomical study are listed, including a disarticulated skull, a saw and dissecting tables.[6] Early requests for funding by the professors of the medical college illustrate the difficulty in procuring the tools necessary for anatomical study that have been present since the conception of the course. Material needs of classrooms and cadaver labs have certainly advanced throughout the course history at UNL, but it is remarkable that the tools required for the first anatomy students are still very necessary and useful in the version of the course known today. The difficulty in procuring materials is also still felt. Models that represent certain aspects of the body, such as the model of a female pelvis, are very helpful for understanding anatomy. Unfortunately, models that are anatomically correct are incredibly expensive and can only be purchased sparingly, imposing a further limitation on the already limited funding.

Anatomical study continued at UNL after the medical college was more fully established in partnership with the Omaha Medical School in 1902. First and second year medical students studied anatomy on campus in preparation for their continued medical education.[7] Study during this time was not only limited to models and charts, but included the study of cadavers. Cadaver dissection and subsequent study, leads to a further understanding of anatomy that cannot be matched through the study of models and charts, no matter how accurate they may be. Human cadavers were an integral part of anatomical study, but due to the difficulty in procuring them dogs were also used for dissection, a practice not uncommon for those studying anatomy. As far back as 300 B.C., animals have served as replacements for human cadavers, due to the difficulty of procurement as well as ethical and religious concerns.[8]  In 1907, Robert M. Wolcott of the University of Nebraska, wrote to the Chancellor and Board of Regents regarding the need to move the facilities housing the dogs used for anatomical study, stressing the importance of such a move as the continued dissection of dogs would be essential to the students’ understanding of important anatomical systems.[9] Human cadaver study was also aiding students at this point in the University’s history. In 1908, dissection occurred in the Mechanical Arts Building. While this may have been beneficial to students, other professors at the time strongly objected and petitioned to move the dissection room away from their offices and working spaces. The professors claimed to suffer under the smell and were unable to work in that condition, arguing that no one could function properly around the “noxious odors arising from decaying human flesh.”[10] Regardless of the smell and the inconveniences the study and dissection of cadavers presented, the students and faculty continued, knowing that it was crucial to the success of their future professions and would certainly benefit the health of their future patients.

 Studying human cadavers at such an early time was not an easy process. Procurement of the cadavers was difficult. Deeded body programs were not yet established and professors had to resort to other less pleasant means to procure their tools of study. In short, grave robbing was not an unknown practice. Difficulty in procuring cadavers was a problem known to most students and professors of anatomy throughout the history of the study. Dissection was seen as a terrible desecration of the human body. During the 18th century, doctors in the U.S. as well as in England had no other means to procure cadavers other than through grave-robbing. As a deterrent for this socially despicable practice, families would guard the graves of their loved ones or place iron cages around them to keep them safe.[11] Less fortunate members of society could not afford to do this or simply had no family to watch over their grave. This meant that the marginalized of society were often the subjects of dissection, which perpetuated the negative stigma that accompanied anatomical cadavers. Ending up as a tool of dissection was seen as such a horrid fate that threat of dissection was used as a deterrent for committing murder. Laws were passed in England as well as the United States during the 18th century, stipulating that perpetrators of crimes such as murder would become cadavers after their execution.[12]

Grave-robbing continued to be the main source of cadaver procurement for most medical schools throughout the 19th century. The increased number of anatomical programs meant that professors could not solely rely on the bodies of criminals. Due to the high demand of medical schools as well as the unpleasant nature of the crime, “body snatchers” as they were called, could make a large profit through the sale of bodies. Some men, including William Burke and William Hare, even found it so lucrative that they went on to murder people in order to sell them as cadavers. Unfortunately, the two men were eventually caught and Burke was himself dissected as a cadaver and put on display.[13] Besides the obvious disrespect, grave robbing had other complications. Due to the fact that bodies were randomly dug up and used in programs based in the area in which the deceased person used to live, it was not uncommon for family members or other acquaintances or the deceased person would recognize the cadavers. Recognition of a cadaver was a horribly traumatic experience, and often led to outrage and even riots. Today, great care is taken in the anatomy program to ensure that the cadavers are not recognized by anyone within the course  Eventually laws were enacted to limit the extent of grave-robbing. Unclaimed bodies were now available to use for dissection. However, using unclaimed bodies still meant that those who lived in poverty or had no family of their own were often the subjects of dissection. Dissection was linked to poverty and misfortune, which did nothing to assuage the disapproval of society concerning cadaver study. The many difficulties in securing the tools needed for anatomical study, including cadavers, contributed to the ongoing problem for UNL professors and their need for funding.

While the College of Medicine only served 43 students in its first year of operation, the outlook for growth was incredibly favorable.[14] Dean A. R. Mitchell believed in the growth of the college and subsequently requested greater funding for its programs asking the Board of Regents to “be as liberal as possible in your appropriations to the College of Medicine.”[15] The grand total Mitchell was seeking did not exceed 500 dollars. Monetary limitations eventually crippled the college. Despite the desire of Nebraskans for a medical college and the importance of the study for the good of humanity the medical college was discontinued in May of 1887.[16]

The University of Nebraska Medical College was once again established in 1902 with the incorporation of the Omaha Medical College into the University system. This merger did not stem the limitations hat the college faced. Lack of funding, resources and space continued to plague the instruction of medicine. Limitations upon instruction space came to the forefront of the college’s concerns in 1907, after a review by the American Medical Association. In the report given to Dr. Ward, Dean of the College of Medicine, the association recommended that every effort be made to increase classroom and laboratory space, especially in the physiology and anatomy departments. The review expressed that the College of Medicine measured up to the standards of neighboring medical schools, however, separate buildings for the college should be constructed including a new laboratory for anatomy.[17]

Funding deficits kept the construction of new laboratories from coming to fruition. Cadaver study continued in the Mechanical Arts building on the University of Nebraska campus to the disappointment of many. Robert A. Wolcott, Head of the Department of Anatomy, held great disapproval for the anatomy facilities. Wolcott’s objections were fully detailed in a report to the Chancellor and Board of regents. Poor lighting, non-existent ventilation and outdated preserving methods constituted only a small portion of the professor’s objections. Wolcott emphasized the need for improvements stating that the conditions did nothing to advance the study of anatomy, the appearance of the college of medicine or the prestige of the University.[18] The inconvenience of this location was not only felt by medical students but by the other occupants of the building. Professors launched a formal petition to the Chancellor and Board of Regents complaining of the smell coming from the cadaver lab.

While the complaints against the anatomical facilities were many, funding was not allocated for a new building. It was not until the medical college moved to Omaha in 1913 that a new facility was built. The construction of a first-class facility was a significant step in advancing the prestige and respect of the University.[19] On the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, anatomical study continued at the undergraduate level. The program evolved throughout the decades and was adapted to serve mostly students pursuing a career in nursing. Today the anatomy program resides in a state-of-the art laboratory within Manter Hall. The program no longer boasts only one cadaver for study but six. Students pursuing a myriad of different careers utilize the incredible opportunity of cadaver study. The expansion was part of an 8.1-million-dollar project to update the biological sciences laboratories, a significant increase from the 500 dollars requested in 1884. The anatomy program at UNL has taken advantage of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act that allows people to donate their body specifically for cadaver study. Vicki Hurd, supervisor of the lab program, emphasizes respect for the cadavers and thankfulness to those willing to donate their body so that future medical professionals can learn.[20]

Despite the difficulties in obtaining funding for materials and cadavers for study throughout the early years of the university’s history, the anatomy program continued to develop at the University of Nebraska. Cadaver study contributed to the success of medical students as well as the prestige of the university. With increased funding the program has developed into an incredibly comprehensive and unique experience for current students hoping to enter the healthcare field. The privilege of studying cadavers will continue to shape the experience of undergraduates at UNL as it has for over 130 years.        

Endnotes

  1. F. B. Righter M.D., letter to UNL Board of Regents, August 15, 1883, Box 4, Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  2. University of Nebraska Board of Regents, telegram to unknown recipient, February 23, 1883, Box 4, Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  3. A.R. Mitchell, report to Chancellor of UNL, May 9, 1884, Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  4. A.R. Mitchell, report to Chancellor of UNL, May 9, 1884, Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  5. F. B. Righter M.D., letter to Board of Regents of UNL, August 15, 1883, Box 4, Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  6. A. R. Mitchell, report to UNL Board of Regents, June 9, 1884, Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  7. History summary, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  8. “History of Vivisection and Dissection.” Dying to Learn. The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 2012, https://www.dyingtolearn.org/animalUseHistory.html.
  9. Robert M. Wolcott, letter to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, June 8, 1907, Box 20, Folder 151, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  10. Petition to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, February 1, 1908, Box 18, File 154, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  11. Raphael Hulkower, “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Historical Perspective (2011): 23-26, http://www.einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/27.1%20Hulkower.PDF.
  12. Raphael Hulkower, “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Historical Perspective (2011): 23-26, http://www.einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/27.1%20Hulkower.PDF.
  13. Raphael Hulkower, “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States,” Historical Perspective (2011): 23-26, http://www.einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/27.1%20Hulkower.PDF.
  14. A.R. Mitchell, report to Chancellor of UNL, May 9, 1884, Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  15. A. R. Mitchell, report to UNL Board of Regents, June 9, 1884, Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  16. History summary, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  17. Henry Bryant, letter to Chancellor Elisha B. Andrews, January 7, 1907, Box 18, Folder 148, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  18. Robert M. Wolcott, letter to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, April 1, 1908, Box 18 Folder 148, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  19. Samuel Avery, “Dedication of the Laboratory Building at the College of Medicine” (1913), in Fourth Annual Alumni Week of the University of Nebraska College of Medicine 1913, 126-127, Box 1, Folder 20/29/0, College of Medicine, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  20. Kelli Rollin, “Donated cadavers expand UNL anatomy courses,” The Daily Nebraskan, September 18, 2013, http://www.dailynebraskan.com/news/donated-cadavers-expand-unl-anatomy-courses/article_2d25ad90-2001-11e3-aa86-001a4bcf6878.html.

 Bibliography

  • Avery, Samuel. “Dedication of the Laboratory Building at the College of Medicine.” 1913. In Fourth Annual Alumni Week of the University of Nebraska College of Medicine 1913, 126-127, Box 1, Folder 20/29/0, College of Medicine, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  • Bryant, Henry. Henry Bryant to Chancellor Elisha B. Andrews, Lincoln, NE, January 7, 1907. Box 18, Folder 148, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  “History of Vivisection and Dissection.” Dying to Learn. The American Anti-Vivisection Society, 2012. https://www.dyingtolearn.org/animalUseHistory.html.
  • History summary. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  • Hulkower, Raphael. “From Sacrilege to Privilege: The Tale of Body Procurement for Anatomical Dissection in the United States.” Historical Perspective (2011): 23-26, http://www.einstein.yu.edu/uploadedFiles/EJBM/27.1%20Hulkower.PDF.
  •  Mitchell, A. R. A. R. Mitchell to Chancellor of UNL, Lincoln, NE, May 9, 1884. Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  • Mitchell, A. R. A. R. Mitchell, to UNL Board of Regents, Lincoln, NE, June 9, 1884. Box 5, Folder 50, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Petition to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, Lincoln, NE, February 1, 1908. Box 18, File 154, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Righter, F. B. F. B. Righter to UNL Board of Regents, Lincoln, NE, August 15, 1883. Box 4,
  • Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Righter, F. B. F. B. Righter to UNL Board of Regents, Lincoln, NE, June 9, 1884. Box 4, Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Rollin, Kelli. “Donated cadavers expand UNL anatomy courses.” The Daily Nebraskan. The Daily Nebraskan, September 18, 2013. http://www.dailynebraskan.com/news/donated-cadavers-expand-unl-anatomy-courses/article_2d25ad90-2001-11e3-aa86-001a4bcf6878.html.
  •  University of Nebraska Board of Regents. University of Nebraska Board of Regents to unknown recipient, Lincoln, NE, February 23, 1883. Box 4, Folder 44, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Wolcott, Robert. Robert Wolcott to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, Lincoln, NE, June 8, 1907. Box 20, Folder 151, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.
  •  Wolcott, Robert M. Robert Wolcott to Board of Regents and Chancellor of UNL, Lincoln, NE, April 1, 1908. Box 18 Folder 148, Board of Regents Papers, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archives and Special Collections, University of Nebraska Libraries.

 

 

 

“How Cadaver Study Has Influenced the University of Nebraska”