Historical essay
Staging Anatomy for Profit . . . and Punishment

Staging Anatomy for Profit . . . and Punishment

Courtney Thompson

On October 17, 2021, the Oddities and Curiosities Expo hosted a public dissection in Portland, Oregon:

Paying customers filed into a lower floor ballroom at the Marriott Downtown Waterfront hotel. On a table in the center of the ballroom, a figure lay draped in a white sheet. The VIP customers, who paid the $500 ticket price, sat in the front row inches from the table. Dr. Colin Henderson, a retired professor of anatomy from the University of Montana in Missoula, removed the covering and exposed the body of an 86-year-old dead man that Henderson said “…had donated his body to science.”

Drawing of a crowd of men, with a dead body suspended from ropes being dissected by doctors on either side. The crowd is meant to represent the people who watched the dissections
Vesalius De Fabrica Humani Corporis Libri Septum fronticepiece. (Wikimedia Commons)

Five hundred years ago, medical student Baldasar Heseler attended a not dissimilar public anatomy conducted by Andreas Vesalius in 1540 in Padua. As he set the scene:

a table on which the subject was laid, was conveniently and well installed with four steps of benches in a circle, so that nearly 200 persons could see the anatomy. However, nobody was allowed to enter before the anatomists, and after them those who had paid 20 sol. More than 150 students were present and D. Curtius, Eirigis, and many other doctors, followers of Curtius. At last, D. Andreas Vesalius arrived, and many candles were lighted, so that we all should see, etc.[1]

In these two dissections, staged five hundred years apart, the key performer was a professor of anatomy, who cut into his corpse – in neither case precisely “donated to science” with the consent and/or awareness of the dead man or his family – watched with eager eyes by a crowd of paying clients, some there for instruction and some for amusement. Lights, camera, dissection.

The Oregon event drew widespread controversy and dismay when news circulated beyond the “community of like-minded people” cultivated by DeathScience.org. However, what happened in this public autopsy is part of a much older history of public dissections staged for fun and profit – for all, of course, but the dead.

Dissection has long been a central component of medical education, but anatomy was not only conducted for the edification of students. In addition to the uses of lay autopsies for ecclesiastical and dynastic purposes in the medieval world, as explored by Katharine Park, other members of the public often attended the public anatomies of the early modern medical school.

The familiar frontispiece of Vesalius’s De Fabrica Humani Corporis Libri Septum (1543) depicts the scene of a public anatomy. Analyses of this scene often draw attention to the central triumvirate of dissector, corpse, and memento mori, or the figures of barber-surgeons scuffling in the foreground over the razors, or the enrobed figure of Galen, depicted along with the dog and monkey that chide the Greek physician for his lack of familiarity with the human body. But the mass of humanity that fills the page is equally important. The page shows some seventy or eighty spectators crowding into the anatomical theater to catch a glimpse of Vesalius as he dissects his subject. Dressed in clothing indicating various social statuses in sixteenth-century Italy, the various (predominantly male) figures push and shove, craning their heads and pointing at the central scene, demonstrating the fascination, the spectacle of the anatomy, open to the (male) public of all classes.

Etching of an anatomy theater. A doctor dissects "Tom Nero" in front of a rowdy observing crowd
Hogarth’s The dissection of the body of Tom Nero. (Wellcome Collection)

The carnivalesque energy of this and other depictions of contemporaneous dissection scenes is not a mistake. Early modern Italian public anatomies were conducted during the winter Carnival holidays, first by custom, then by decree. Part of this timing was practical: the coldest months of the year, January and February, made it possible for bodies to be preserved longer (and to stink less). But Carnival was also a time in which typically transgressive behavior was made permissible – illicit activities were made licit, and even ritualized, in the context of the public anatomy. Another factor that made the act of human dissection more palatable to the public was the choice of corpses, which in early modern Italy were exclusively taken from executed criminals who were not citizens of the locality in which the dissection would be staged. These legally acquired corpses were often supplemented in more private anatomical lessons with bodies snatched from graves.

Even if the Carnival-style of public dissection faded from view as the centuries passed, public dissections did not altogether fall by the wayside. The practice continued well into the nineteenth century, as documents from the United States and United Kingdom show. Following the trial of William Burke and William Hare for murder in Edinburgh in 1829 – ironically enough, to procure bodies to sell to physicians for the dissecting hall – Burke’s body was publicly dissected, with a focus on the brain. The public demonstration of anatomy on the bodies of executed criminals became a common coda to the story of a criminal’s crime, capture, trial, and execution. Further, many of the skulls, death casts, and other similar anatomical mementos often found their homes in a physician’s or phrenologist’s private cabinet of curiosities, or within public museums and collections, furthering the “career” of the criminal and extending the spectacle of their public discipline via dissection.

The bodies of criminals, of course, were not the only bodies that provided a source for anatomies, both public and private. The bodies of the poor and indigent, people of color, and the enslaved were frequent resources for dissection and anatomical instruction throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, by and large the spectacle of “public anatomy” was reserved for the convicted criminal. The opening of the body was a final punishment for his (or more rarely, her) crime – sometimes, a public dissection was even ordered as part of the sentencing. To conduct an autopsy before the public, particularly the paying public, was to add insult to injury for the dead, or to add yet more punishment, extended even beyond life. The public dissection was a final act of judgment for spectators to witness, the ultimate objectification of those deemed worthy of the indignity of such a display.

It is thus not surprising that these longstanding associations of public dissection with punishment, with infamy, and with shame have endured. While one attendee of the 2021 public dissection suggested that “They’re not doing anything that I would, if it was my own family member, be upset about,” the widow of the deceased man whose body was dissected had a quite different response. “Oh,” she said, “I think it is reprehensible…I think that this – they are using my husband’s body. Like he’s a performing bear or something.”

Historians often draw attention to “change over time” as a key element for historical research, but continuities are just as important. We must ask why certain practices persist, and who benefits – and who suffers – from the rhythms of repetition in history. This distaste for modern-day public anatomy stems, in part, from the long history of these practices, and the associations between criminality, punishment, and public dissection. What are the presumed indignities of a public anatomy in 2021, such that one would be appalled that a body “donated to science” ended up like this? What drew spectators to pay to attend a dissection, whether paying the relatively paltry sum of 20 soldi in 1540 or $500 in 2021? And what might this case suggest in terms of how we might reconsider other public uses of the dead and their remains? Where might we draw the line between respectful display and indignity, if dignity is even a possibility in the display of the remains of those who did not consent to these uses of their bodies?

A pamphlet for the Oddities and Curiosities Expo advertising the “Cadaver Lab Workshop” promises that in the Forensic Autopsy Class “we will find new perspectives on how the human body can tell a story.” In this case, the human bodies – both living and dead – associated with these pay-per-view dissections are not telling a new story, but a very, very old one.

Further Reading:

Andrea Carlino (trans. John Tedeschi and Anne C. Tedeschi), Books of the Body: Anatomical Ritual and Renaissance Learning (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (Zone Books, 2006)

Christine Quigley, Dissection on Display: Cadavers, Anatomists, and Public Spectacle (McFarland & Co., 2012).

Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute, 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Michael Sappol, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton University Press, 2004)

Courtney E. Thompson, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America (Rutgers University Press, 2021)

John Harley Warner and James M. Edmunson, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine, 1880–1930 (Blast Books, 2009)


  1. Baldasar Heseler, “Andreas Vesalius’ First Public Anatomy at Bologna, 1540: An Eyewitness Report,” in Medicine and Western Civilization, ed. David J. Rothman, Steven Marcus, and Stephanie A. Kiceluk (Rutgers University Press, 1995): 61–65, quotation on 61.

Featured image caption: Anatomy Theater at the Leidse Academy, 1609. (Courtesy Bartholomeus Willemsz/Rijksmuseum)

Courtney E. Thompson is an assistant professor in the history of science and medicine and gender and women's history at Mississippi State University.

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