In Which Brutes Were Dissected

in about Warren

Date: circa 1800

Author: John Warren

“In some of the more populous towns, students were sometimes indulged with the privilege of examining the bodies of those who had died from any extraordinary diseases; and in a few instances, associations were formed for pursuing the business of dissection, where opportunities offered, from casualties or from public executions, for doing it in decency and safety.  A private society had existed in the university under the denomination of the Anatomical Society, in which brutes [i.e. beasts or animals] were dissected, and demonstrations on the bones of the human skeleton were delivered by the members.

But the Revolution was the era to which the first medical school east of Philadelphia, together with many valuable institutions, owes its birth.  The military hospitals of the United States furnished a large field for observation and experiment in the various branches of the healing art, as well as an opportunity for anatomical investigations; and to them many of the most eminent practitioners of the present day are indebted for their reputation and usefulness.”

Source: The first paragraph appears in Matthews, Albert “Notes on Early Autopsies and Anatomical Findings” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Vol. 19, pp. 273-290, 1917. The larger extract appears in Edward Warren’s The Life of John Warren, MD  Boston: Noyes, Holmes, and Company, 1874, pp. 226-227.  I believe that the undated ms was prepared by John Warren for some official function or account of the medical school. The handwritten ms very likely resides among the John Collins Warren Papers, Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society. I could not find it there on my last visit, but it is sometimes hard to pinpoint a single item in this large manuscript ‘haystack.’

Commentary:  This account seems to be a gussied up version of events, neither referring to resurrectionist activities nor the Harvard Spunkers.

I have speculated, based on an interpretation of William Eustis’ account of the pursuit of Levi Ames’ body in October 1773, that 1770s pre-Revolutionary aspiring Harvard physicians were split ideologically.  The legendary Spunkers were all Patriots, while the rival Clarke group appears to have been Loyalists of the Anatomical Club.

Previous post:

Next post: