Robert M. Green demonstrating an anatomical dissection by Thomas Woolstone Dixon, circa 1929. Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
Why study human anatomy? To John Hall, writing his poem An Historicall Expostulation
, in 1565, it was the chief of medical arts which had to be mastered “if ye will cure well anything.”
Anatomy was one of the three first areas of medical study at Harvard, and John Warren, the first member of the faculty, was a renowned anatomist and surgeon. And though Oliver Wendell Holmes could maintain by 1861, that “human anatomy may be considered an almost exhausted science. From time to time some small organ which had escaped earlier observers has been pointed out… but some of our best anatomical works are those which have been classic for many generations,”
anatomy through dissection continued to be studied and taught to first-year medical students, and it still holds a place in the modern curriculum today. The Nature of Every Member: an Anatomy of Dissection at Harvard
, a new exhibit from the Center for the History of Medicine, is now open on the first floor of the Countway Library. It chronicles the long and distinguished history of the study and teaching of human anatomy through dissection, moving from the very foundation of the Medical School to the present day. Echoing the changes in teaching human dissection are the developments in anatomical legislation, as the illicit practice of grave-robbing for dissection gives way to Thomas Dwight’s 1896 formulation that cadavers for study are only “loaned to science”
, paving the way for the legal instruments of anatomical gift in common use today.
Notable items in the exhibit include Ezekiel Hersey’s 1770 will, establishing the Hersey Professorship of Anatomy at Harvard with John Warren’s notes from his earliest anatomical lectures at the school; John Collins Warren’s 1831 Massachusetts legislation which first legalized the use of cadavers for medical study; Oliver Wendell Holmes’ own copy of the first edition of Gray’s Anatomy; gross anatomy course descriptions and examinations; notes on lectures and dissection work by student Ralph Clinton Larrabee (Class of 1897); a 1951 report outlining the need for an electron microscope for anatomical research; a pocket kit of dissection tools owned by George Thomas Perkins, a student in the 1850s; and reproductions of several vivid photographs of life at the Medical School by Thomas Woolstone Dixon (Class of 1929), including the depiction of Robert M. Green at work shown above. A rare colored lithograph from 1840, “The Dissecting Room,” depicts English anatomist William Hunter teaching dissection and gives some impression of what early conditions might have been like at Harvard.
The Nature of Every Member,
T. C. Wilson, after Thomas Rowlandson.
The dissecting room, from the original by Rowlandson, in the possession of William Tiffin Illife, Esqr. : colored lithograph (circa 1840). Harvard Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine 
which will be on display through the end of 2014, was designed to complement Body of Knowledge: a History of Anatomy (in 3 Parts)
which is currently on exhibit at the Collection of Historic Scientific Instruments on the Cambridge campus and incorporates many anatomical specimens, models, rare books, prints, and photographs from the library and museum collections at the Center for the History of Medicine.
For additional information on the exhibit, contact the Center at email@example.com or 617.432.2170.