Date of Award

Spring 2007

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

J William Harris


When the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a mandatory anatomy law in 1883, they were conceding to medicine and science the need for human dissection "material." The legislature was also conceding authority, entrusting physicians and scientists to regulate the messy business of human dissection. In addition to providing bodies for dissection, the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883 created a modern, state-level bureaucratic entity run by medical experts empowered with self governance: the Anatomical Board of Pennsylvania. Scholars have paid scant attention to the post grave-robbing history of anatomy and dissection in the United States. When the state engaged in body procurement for medicine and science, who wound up on the dissection tables and in the specimen jars of anatomy laboratories? Specifically, whose bodies were used "for the promotion of medical science"?

Dissecting the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act takes a critical look at state-sanctioned body procurement under this anatomy law from its three constituent perspectives: the bureaucratic structure of the anatomical board---laws; the people who became cadavers---bodies; and, anatomists and their research---science. The Records of the Anatomical Board of the State of Pennsylvania document the administration, interpretation, and implementation of the law, and provide the means to construct a social portrait of the individuals who became cadavers. A quantitative analysis of data on dissection subjects reveals that these people are not strangers to history: their lives have provided the topical building blocks to construct narratives of the modern United States.

Analysis of the Pennsylvania anatomy law illuminates an important beginning of the modern period of legal, medical, and scientific authority, alliance, and bureaucracy. The creation of anatomical boards provided the bureaucratic veneer necessary to modernize dissection. The Pennsylvania law succeeded because physicians found a way to routinize body procurement for "science" under the banner "for the public good." In their effort to side-step public resistance to dissection, physicians and legislators designed laws that targeted powerless groups. Legalization did not end the inequality of dissection. On the contrary, legalization institutionalized the discrimination.