Resurrecting the History of Body-Snatching at McGill

Guest post by Annelise Dowd. Annelise is a McGill University Master of Information Studies student with research interests in the digital humanities, library accessibility, and special collections outreach.

 

“He told us there were two subjects, and that as you were nervous he’d set you and Jim to work first; that our turn would come. He pointed to a grave; said that’s where would have to work; told us not to begin until he returned, as we might be caught; and that when we heard the whistle we were to run to the gate.”

 

My Last Experience of Resurrectionning,”

McGill University Gazette,vol. 1, no. 4: January 1, 1874

 

The Origins of McGill Student Body-Snatching

Anatomy study, McGill medical students, Montreal, QC, 1884. McCord Museum.

In the 1830s, the nascent McGill Medical Faculty was incorporating the practice of dissection as the central method for anatomical instruction. However, even with the introduction of the Anatomy Act in 1843, an act intended to legally require institutions to supply bodies to medical faculties, the city of Montréal failed to donate an adequate number of cadavers. With limited options and little institutionally provided dissection material, McGill medical students quite literally took the issue into their own hands.

Portrait of the McGill “Resurrectionists”

Graduating Class in Medicine, c.1905. McGill Archives.

The McGill University Gazette, McGill’s first newspaper, illustrates the figure of the student body-snatcher, or a more popular term at the time, “resurrectionist.” Medical students resurrected corpses for one of two purposes: for their own anatomical exams, or to supply bodies to their professors, with a reward of $30-$50 per body. For a number of medical students, body-snatching was an efficient, albeit morbid, means to cover one’s tuition.

Body-snatching was often a winter activity, due to the frozen ground preventing the burial of bodies. Until the ground thawed, corpses were stored above ground in cemetery “dead houses,” an easy target for students to forcibly enter and steal bodies. A winter body-snatching trip would typically include hiking to Côte-des-Neiges or Mount Royal cemetery in the dead of night, removing the corpses from their caskets, and tobogganing down the snow-covered slope with their “subjects” in tow.

“The Good Old Days at McGill,” The McGill Daily Vol. 39 No. 001: September 27, 1949

The legal ramifications for body snatching were minor, and the general attitude towards body-snatching amongst the medical student body was openly positive. In fact, students fined in court for body snatching in 1875 were hoisted on the shoulders of a sea of medical students, chanting and singing in encouragement of their classmates’ deeds!

The Continued Legacy of Body-Snatching

In 1883, a strengthened Anatomy Act put greater pressure on institutions to provide bodies to Montréal’s medical schools. In effect, by the twentieth century, any mention of body-snatching had all but disappeared. Yet, as noted in the early issues of The McGill Daily, the legacy of these “brave resurrectionists” lived on in the medical faculty for decades. Annually, students would celebrate “King Cook”, the medical building custodian who assisted students in sneaking unofficially obtained corpses on campus. These celebrations consisted of a parade down Saint Catherine Street and humorous theatrical productions, in which the famed Stephen Leacock was known to partake in.

Medical Building janitor King Cook dressed as John Bull, the patriotic symbol of Great Britain, with medical students, 1918. McGill Archives.

The notoriously rowdy “King Cook Celebration” was documented as last occurring in 1926, and since then the history of the medical student body-snatching has been largely forgotten. Although largely absent from official documents, the remaining first-person accounts reveal this morbid and fascinating period in McGill Faculty of Medicine history.

 

 

 

Sources:

Hanaway, Joseph, and Richard Cruess. “The Faculty of Medicine: 1874–85: The Osler Years.” McGill Medicine: The First Half Century, 1829-1885, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996, pp. 65–99, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt814n7.11.

Lawrence, D.G. “Resurrection and Legislation or Body-Snatching in Relation to the Anatomy Act in the Province of Quebec.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 32.5 (1958). Print.

Shepherd, Francis J. Reminiscences of Student Days and Dissecting Room. Montreal: publisher not identified, 1919. Print.

The McGill Student Publications Collection

Worthington, E D. Reminiscences of Student Life and Practice. Sherbrooke [Quebec: Printed for Sherbrooke Protestant Hospital by Walton, 1981.

 

Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy

Want to see what happens when two historians, a folklorist, and virologist come together to discuss vaccination? Please join us for Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy, a multidisciplinary discussion panel hosted by the Osler Library for the History of Medicine.

Monday, February 20th, 5:30-7:30PM
3rd Floor McIntyre Medical Building
3655 Promenade Sir-William-Osler
Image of "vaccinating American-bound passengers on a train of the Grand Trunk Railway," by James Marvin, 1885.

“The recent smallpox epidemic in Montreal – vaccinating American-bound passengers on a train of the Grand Trunk Railway,” James Marvin, 1885. Osler Library Prints Collection.

The panel will include:

“Bestiality in a Time of Smallpox: Dr. Jenner and the Modern Chimera,” Rob Boddice, PhD FRHistS (Freie Universität Berlin), Historian of Medicine, Science and Emotions

‘The grease taken from the heels of horses: Collective Memory and Collective Silencing in the History of Vaccination Controversy,” Cynthia Tang, MSc MA (McGill University), PhD student in the History of Medicine

“Vaccination: Legend, Rumour, and Alternative Facts Throughout History,”
Andrea Kitta, PhD (East Carolina University), Folklorist specializing in medicine, belief and the supernatural

“Should vaccination against measles and other infectious agents if proven safe be compulsory?,”
Mark Wainberg, PhD OC OQ FRSC (McGill University), Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre

This panel is being held in promotion of the Osler Library’s current exhibition, Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998, to explore some of the historical and contemporary cases of resistance to vaccination. Vaccination and Its Discontents: Historical and Contemporary Reflections on Vaccination and Vaccine Hesitancy will aim at analysing the character of the fears and doubts of anti-vaccinists, and the successes and failures of vaccination’s proponents in addressing the concerns of their opponents. The contemporary rhetoric surrounding vaccination is implicitly connected to, and draws upon, two centuries of rehearsal. Recognising the essential structure of anti-vaccinist arguments in particular may provide new ways to address them. The panel works towards novel approaches to vaccination controversies, opening up new possibilities for contending with vaccine hesitancy in our own times.

 

Please join us in this discussion, followed by a wine & cheese reception.

 

Relevant reading: 
Andrea Kitta and Daniel Goldberg, “The Significance of Folklore for Vaccine Policy: Discarding the Deficit Model,” Critical Public Health (2016).
Rob Boddice, “Vaccination, Fear and Historical Relevance,” History Compass (2016).
Mark Wainberg, PhD OC OQ FRSC (McGill University) Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre

The exhibit, Vaccination: Fame, Fear and Controversy, 1798-1998, is open to the public during library hours, Monday-Friday, 9:00-5:00 and runs through the end of April 2017.

Both the exhibit and the speaker panel are co-sponsored by the McGill Faculty of Medicine and the Freie Universität Berlin.

Vernissage for new exhibition, Vaccination: Fear, Fame and Controversy, 1798-1998

Since its earliest days, vaccination has been attended by hesitation, resistance and controversy. Why did an innovation that promised to rid the world of the terrible scourge of smallpox inspire such enduring fear? When Jenner spearheaded the promotion of vaccination at the turn of the nineteenth century, he predicted the end of a disease that had taken 60 million lives in the eighteenth century alone. He was right, but it took until 1980 before the World Health Organization could proclaim “smallpox zero”. This exhibition explores the tension between the promised public-health benefits of vaccination and the reasons why resistance checked its acceptance. It seeks to understand the origins of vaccine hesitancy through various cases, both local and global, and demonstrates the legacy of those cases in contemporary vaccination debates. vffcredhighres

Please join us for a vernissage with wine and cheese for this exhibition, Wednesday, February 1st, 2017, at the Osler Library, 4:30-6:30PM.

Blood of the Vampire at the Osler Library

 

Poster Vampire

Please join us for a film screening Tuesday, March 8th, of the almost-cult classic BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958), held in conjunction with our latest exhibition, Knowing Blood: Medical Observations, Fluid Meanings.

From Wikipedia:

Transylvania in the 19th century. A young doctor John Pierre (Vincent Ball) and his fiancee Madeleine Duval (Barbara Shelley) are terrorized by Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) who was executed but has returned to life with a heart transplant. Along with his mute and hunchback assistant Carl (Victor Maddern), who is now fallen in love with Madeleine, the ‘anemic’ mad scientist, believed to be a vampire, conducts blood deficiency research on the inmates of a prison hospital for the criminally insane to sustain his return to life.

 

Health Art Exhibition: accepting submissions

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity.” – Hippocrates

pastedImageHealth and illness are universal experiences that can be frightening and disorienting, yet also have the potential to inspire, transform, and heal. Out of this, there arises a need to express, make sense of, and derive personal meaning from what has been experienced. One of these ways is through art.

Artwork is currently being accepted for the Health Art Exhibition, which will be taking place  winter 2016 at the MUHC Glen site hospital, with specific dates to be announced! To submit artwork for the exhibit: https://goo.gl/e6cE9C

Deadline for submissions: Friday, February 5, 2016. 

For questions and further details, please contact 2015health.art@gmail.com.

https://healthartexhibition.wordpress.com/

 

New exhibition: Knowing blood / Sang sens

Knowing BloodKnowing Blood: Medical Observations, Fluid Meanings

This exhibition is about observations, meanings, and understandings of blood from the late 15th to the mid-20th century. Blood has long been a powerful and evocative symbol, signifying themes from life, identity, community and kinship to sex, lineage, violence and death. Practices of observing blood in experiment, diagnosis, and therapy have also varied widely: a melange of cells seen under a microscope, a pulse felt by a trained touch, the taste of blood from a barber-surgeon’s bowl, a map comparing hematological and racial groups. Modern Western medicine has known not one but many kinds of blood.

Knowing Blood queries how various practices of observation have encountered the multifarious meanings of blood and negotiated new medical knowledge. The objects, texts, and images displayed here are drawn from the collections of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, the Humanities and Social Sciences and Schulich Libraries, the Maude Abbott Medical Museum, and le Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. Five thematic cases highlight different historical approaches to observation, their relation to changing systems of medical practice and to blood’s broader meanings. We invite you to explore this rich 400-year history of knowing and observing the most vital of bodily fluids.

Sang sensSang sens : observations médicales, interprétations fluides

Cette exposition porte sur l’observation, la signification et les représentations du sang de la fin du XVe au milieu du XXe siècle. Évoquant des thèmes de vie, d’identité, de communauté et de parenté, mais aussi de sexe, de génétique, de violence et de mort, le sang constitue depuis des siècles un symbole puissant. Les pratiques d’observation du sang dans les contextes expérimental, diagnostic et thérapeutique ont par ailleurs largement varié; depuis un mélange de cellules aperçu sous un microscope à un pouls tâté minutieusement, en passant par une certaine odeur détectée après une saignée ou encore une carte du monde comparant divers groupes hématologiques et raciaux. La médecine occidentale contemporaine a ainsi connu non pas un mais bien plusieurs types de sang.

Sang sens interroge les croisements multiples entre ces diverses pratiques d’observation et d’interprétation ayant contribué à la mise en place de nouveaux savoirs médicaux. Les objets, textes et images ici exposés sont tirés des collections de la bibliothèque Osler d’histoire de la médecine, de la bibliothèque des sciences humaines et sociales et de la bibliothèque Schulich, du Musée médical Maude Abbott, et du Musée des Hospitalières de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. Cinq vitrines thématiques mettent en évidence différentes facettes historiques de l’observation ainsi que leur relation avec les systèmes de la pratique médicale et les significations variées du sang dans divers discours. Nous vous invitons à découvrir cette histoire riche de 400 ans au sein de laquelle a été imaginé et montré le plus vital des fluides corporels.


The vernissage will be held on January 27th at 6PM and is open to all / Le vernissage aura lieu le 27 janvier à 18h et est ouvert a tous.

The exhibition is accessible during library opening hours, Monday-Friday, 9AM-5PM/ L’exposition est accessible pendant les heures d’ouverture de la bibliothèque, lundi à vendredi, 9h-17h.

Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, McIntyre Medical Building, 3655 Promenade Sir-William-Osler 

 

 

Upcoming talk: Charms in late medieval English medicine

We are pleased to announce that one of our Edward H. Bensley Osler Library Research Travel Grant winners, Dr. Elma Brenner, will be speaking at the library on Wednesday, 20 January. Dr. Brenner, subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine at the Wellcome Library in London, will give the talk “Combating Danger: Charms in Late Medieval English Medicine.

5:00 PM, Wellcome Camera of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine. This talk is presented by McGill Medievalists.

Brenner Poster

New archival resources: D. Sclater Lewis and the history of the RVH

The library has recently finished describing a number of new accruals to the D. Sclater Lewis archival fonds (P105). Dr. Lewis was a medical graduate of McGill (MDCM 1912) and later Acting Physician-in-Chief at the Royal Victoria Hospital. The new archival documents include a draft manuscript of his 1969 Royal Victoria Hospital, 1887-1947, and substantial correspondence.