“They Increase in Beauty and Elegance”: Transforming Cadavers and the Epistemology of Dissection in Early Nineteenth-Century American Medical Education

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This paper investigates the origins of the practice of dissection in American medical education in order to both understand the function of dissection in medical education and challenge conventional wisdom about that function. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American medical schools increasingly made human dissection a crucial part of their curricula, privileging use of the human cadaver over any other anatomical model. In this paper, I break apart the claims that American physicians made at that time regarding the unique pedagogic usefulness of the cadaver, and I juxtapose those claims against the realities of the dissection process. In doing so, I show how the realities of dissection differed sharply from the depictions given by physicians. In the conclusion, I argue that the cadaver still remained epistemologically and ontologically useful to the medical profession, although not necessarily for the reasons physicians explicitly stated.

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