In Fall 1906, three weeks into their freshman year, Elizabeth Cisney-Smith and her classmates were, as she wrote, “initiated” to the dissecting room of The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), one of the nation’s first degree-granting medical schools for women.1 Per tradition, a crowd of upperclassmen assembled in the third floor hall, just outside the dissecting room door, to see which of the “squeamish” freshmen would faint at the sight of a cadaver. The doors were opened; the white sheets draping the dead were tossed aside; but, to the crowd’s dismay, not a single student collapsed. In fact, stated Smith proudly, “no one ever did in my class.”
Coursework in Practical Anatomy was taught at WMCP over a period of two years. Students were required to dissect specified body parts in order to pass each semester. In the beginning, recalled Smith, the Demonstrator of Anatomy assigned four freshmen to each body, “two on arms – two on legs. I was given an arm fortunately — not so messy — and was kept on it for five weeks. The next semester I was given a leg for five weeks.”
The following year, due to her mother’s failing health from bowel cancer, Smith condensed the entirety of her sophomore dissections — which included the head, abdomen, and chest — down to an intensive ten-week course. “That almost finished me physically,” she remembered, “as ten weeks is too long of that kind of work without a change.”
During this concentrated period of dissection, Smith learned a truth about the undissected portions of their cadavers, and how “the sophomores used the bodies … between freshman periods.” Within the material economy of the WMCP dissecting room, cadavers became commodities. Students in the various classes mapped their personal territories upon the body and its prized preferential parts, like explorers laying claim to newly discovered lands.
To declare dominion within these corporeal anatomical atlases implied an assumed level of ownership. Practically, though, it ensured that the cadaver — and the delicate work done within — was safeguarded from the potentially careless behaviors of the living. To this end, warned Smith, if “a head dissector ever edged in on an arm dissector or an abdomen person came around when the leg lady was working, there was a real war.” That war she would soon witness firsthand:
On Acclimating to the Cut
The primary purpose of anatomical dissection was technical in nature, providing knowledge of the topography, function, and relationships of the internal structures of the human body. But, on social and professional levels, it was also designed to be transformative by desensitizing students to death, disease, and the dead body. Thus, as a transformative rite of passage, dissection was intrinsically linked to student identity.
Nonetheless, acclimating the living dissector to the sight, smell, and feel of the dissected dead was an arduous procedure. Many medical students, across a variety of backgrounds, religions, universities, and genders, felt slicing into a cadaver’s flesh was a horrific ritual. In November 1847, over a half-century before Smith laid eyes on her first cadaver, Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first female physician, described how her male classmates at Geneva Medical College had “blushed … were hysterical, and … held down their faces and shook” during a particularly explicit dissection.2 As to her own response, declared Blackwell, “My delicacy was certainly shocked, I had to pinch my hand till the blood nearly came, and call on Christ to help me.”3
To become accustomed to such scenes, students needed to ignore their senses, overcome their nightmares, and force themselves “to beat down the aversion to cutting flesh that had once been living, even as you or I,” explained WMCP student, Edith Flower Wheeler.4 Although overcoming “the shrinking from touching a very cold dead body,” was admittedly difficult, “it could be done.”5 And in time, assured Wheeler, dedicating oneself to an interest in anatomy “blotted out the shrinking.”6
On Commemorating the Cut
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, medical students at nearly every medical school in America began commemorating the transformative ritual of dissection by posing for photographic portraits with their cadavers. This unlikeliest of medical traditions emerged as a dominant form of self-expression around the 1880s, and continued in earnest until roughly the early 1930s.7
Dissection photographs ranged from large mounted prints to small personal mementos stored in wallets and even postcards mailed home to unsuspecting loved ones. The scenes they evidenced also varied in explicitness, from formal portraits honoring the bodies of the dead to tableaus transgressing the boundaries of flesh, professional identity, photographic aesthetics, and societal “good taste.”
As medical historian John Harley Warner discusses, dissection photographs “recount the rite of passage to a new identity — they present a professional coming-of-age narrative.”8 By 1900, thanks to advances in photographic technologies, medical students became the authors of their own narratives. With the introduction of cameras like George Eastman’s Kodak — marketed keenly toward amateur photographers and women — the photographic realm was no longer the exclusive domain of commercial photographers; now anyone could take a photograph. All one needed was a camera. Luckily for Elizabeth Cisney-Smith, her husband Edwin (a medical student at nearby Jefferson Medical College) was an amateur photographer and owned several.
On Transcending the Cut
In the hands of student-photographers, the camera became both submissive and subversive. It was the method and the means to not only commemorate anatomical dissection, but also evidence, experiment with, and explore the physical, emotional, moral, and psychological facets of the complex relationship between student and cadaver.
Students at WMCP had been using photography to form and fortify more personal iterations of their identities since the 1890s. Posing with cadavers, and each other, freed them in part from the limiting conventions of centuries of anatomical imagery — images that placed women in the seemingly eternal role of the dissected, never the dissector.9 With the push of a button and the millisecond snap of a camera shutter, students could now take advantage of their representative agency. In doing so they could transgress many of the social strictures, biases, and criticisms that had plagued their numbers since WMCP’s founding over a half century ago. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism of the times was that involvement in anatomical dissection violated a law of a woman’s being.10
Generally speaking, dissecting rooms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were grotesque, filthy spaces. With no long-term means of preserving human remains or administrative oversight to police morally questionable behaviors (usually involving the cadaver), these rooms were often filled with the rotting bodies of the dead and the equally rotten behaviors of the living. According to public opinion, an environment such as this was no place for a woman.
Indeed, many “wise men and honorable women” feared for the purity of the female form and psyche within the confines of the American medical school.11 Prominent physicians gave lectures against women becoming doctors, convinced such a path could only result in “scenes of maternal neglect, domestic discord, and annihilated social distinctions.”12 The Massachusetts physician and skeptic, Dr. Dan King, railed against female dissectors in the pages of his book, Quackery Unmasked (1858), warning his readers that the obtainment of anatomical knowledge threatened to transform a woman from the “pride and ornament of the race — the sacred repository of all that is virtuous and lovely,” into a sexless “monster in the garb of a female, a nondescript, a being sui generis… when she enters the fetid laboratory of the anatomist, and plunges her hands into the gore of dead men, she loses all her feminine loveliness, and appears like a fallen angel, an object of universal horror and disgust.”13
Women physicians, such as WMCP’s Professor of Anatomy and Histology, Emeline H. Cleveland, weathered the storm of criticisms by using detractors own words against them. Cleveland countered that the feminine virtues bemoaned to be lost to a woman in the pursuit of a medical career were, in fact, the very traits that made her well suited for an equal place within the ranks of the profession:
Meanwhile, students at WMCP took up their cameras and resorted to more visually explicit and progressive means of expressing their suitability to a career in medicine.
To some, this meant creating commemorative portraiture that showed themselves working diligently, and confidently within the gritty confines of the dissecting room. Others chose to pose alone inside the college’s medical museum, surrounded by jarred organs, papier-mâché manikins, and disembodied limbs.
Others still, engaged in gallows humor, flaunting their comfort with the emblems and acts of their chosen profession (usually in the privacy of their boarding-house rooms) by dressing articulated skeletons in street clothes, giving them nicknames and pretending they were reanimated, or wearing portions of skulls atop their own heads.15
Soon, the visual culture of student life and professional development at WMCP would no longer be consigned to a communal experience overseen by disapproving faculty, male students, a skeptical public, or mitigated by the critical eye of a professional photographer. Now they could speak to individualized experiences, as individualized by the students themselves, be it in the dissecting room, the clinic, in public, or in their homes.
With an eye towards transgressing the traditions of the past in a way that spoke to her unique situation (as a woman married to a fellow medical student), Smith snuck her husband’s camera, and Edwin along with it, into the dissecting room of WMCP. Edwin set the timer; they positioned themselves behind a cadaver; and together, husband and wife commemorated a rite of passage their respective schools decreed must always be done separately. Today, it is the only known image of the Smiths jointly engaged in medical education.
While modern viewers may dismiss dissection photographs, like those by the Smiths, as mere grotesqueries, they exist today as an inseparable part of our medical heritage. To fully appreciate how the commemorated experiences — as well as the experiences involved in taking photographs — transformed countless medical students around the world on personal, professional, and social levels, look no further than Smith’s own words. As an elderly woman, reflecting back on the significant events of her time at WMCP, and the events she memorialized through photography, she wrote, “At last life had begun for us in a way that was completely satisfying.”
- Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from Elizabeth Cisney-Smith “The Personal History and Background Diary of Elizabeth Cisney–Smith,” WM.2007.002, Box 2 Folder 2, Isabel Smith Stein Collection on Elizabeth Cisney-Smith, The Legacy Center: Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine and Homeopathy, Drexel University College of Medicine. Return to text.
- Elizabeth Blackwell, Pioneer Work for Women (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1914), 58. Return to text.
- Blackwell, Pioneer Work for Women, 58. Return to text.
- Edith Flower Wheeler, “She Saunters Off Into Her Past,” draft of typescript autobiography, unpublished, 1946, X.2002.2, The Legacy Center: Archives and Special Collections on Women in Medicine and Homeopathy, Drexel University College of Medicine. Return to text.
- Wheeler, “She Saunters Off Into Her Past.” Return to text.
- Wheeler, “She Saunters Off Into Her Past.” Return to text.
- By 1950, in The United States, the tradition was virtually extinct. Some schools continued taking photographs well into the 1970s, but these images were, with few exceptions, relegated almost exclusively to the halftone pages of medical school yearbooks and often featured intense cropping to mask the cadaver’s face and genitalia. Return to text.
- John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson, Dissection: Photographs as a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 (New York: Blast Books, 2009), 15. Return to text.
- Although women do appear in paintings and photographs as nurses and other supportive roles, they are rarely figured as occupying positions of authority — especially within the dissecting room. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rules. This is evidenced by the illustration to Johann Adam Kulmus’s Tabulae anatomicae (Amsterdam: 1732), titled, “The Human Body and the Library as Sources of Knowledge,” which features an allegorical female dissector holding a knife over a prone female cadaver. Return to text.
- In 1870, famed surgeon David Hayes Agnew spoke against women in medicine during a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania stating, “let her remember there are laws controlling the social structure of society, the operation of which will disrobe her of all those qualities now the glory of the sex, and will cast her down in the dust of the earth.” D. Hayes Agnew, Lecture introductory to the one hundred and fifth course of instruction in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania: delivered Monday, October 10, 1870 (Philadelphia: R.P. King’s Sons, printers, 1870), 18. Agnew would later resign his teaching position at The Pennsylvania Hospital rather than lecture to an audience that included students from the WMCP. Return to text.
- E.H. Cleveland, Introductory Lecture on Behalf of the Faculty to the Class of The Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, for the session of 1858-1859 (Philadelphia: Merrihew & Thompson, printers, 1858), 6. Return to text.
- Cleveland, Introductory Lecture, 6. Return to text.
- Dan King, Quackery Unmasked: or, A Consideration of the Most Prominent Empirical Schemes of the Present Time, (Boston: 1858), 214-215. Return to text.
- Cleveland, 10-11. Return to text.
- Although women joked around and posed freely with skeletons and bones, they placed strict limits upon their photographic endeavors with cadavers; be it for social, religious, or professional reasons. Today, virtually no examples exist showing women engaged in disrespectful, frivolous, racially-insensitive, or sexually-themed acts with full or partially-dissected cadavers — unlike their male counterparts, whose hijinks became the stuff of legend. Return to text.