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.

 

Illustrated Talk: The Maude Abbott Medical Museum 1822-2017

You’re invited! Please join us next Tuesday February 14th, 4pm for an illustrated talk by Dr. Richard Fraser, Professor of Pathology at McGill Faculty of Medicine, Senior Pathologist at MUHC, Director of the Maude Abbott Medical Museum.

Learn about the repository’s treasured history at McGill and observe a carefully curated selection of specimens and preserved curiosities from this unique collection!

Dissection Room Records 1883-1908

Inscription on first page of Dissection Room Record 1883-1891 written by Dr. Richard Lea MacDonnell, Demonstrator of Anatomy, McGill University in April 1883.

We are pleased to have these historical records back at the Osler Library after receiving recent conservation treatment. These books contain records of all McGill Faculty of Medicine dissection cadavers in the Department of Anatomy from 1883-1891, and 1896-1908.

When the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada’s Anatomy Act of 1843 was amended in April 1883, Senior Demonstrator of Anatomy Dr. Richard Lea MacDonnell began keeping these detailed records at McGill. Prior to the Anatomy Act, body-snatching was a nefarious problem often associated with the study of anatomy. The 1843 and 1883 Acts allowed for more corpses to be made available to medical schools for the purpose of teaching and learning. The records preserved within these books provide details and evidence of the Department of Anatomy’s legally acquired cadavers at the time. Each entry includes details such as name, sex, age, cause of death, religion, date received, which hospital the cadaver was received from, and the date and location of burial.

Richard Lea MacDonnell (1856-1891) was the son of Dublin surgeon Dr. Robert Lea MacDonnell. A graduate of McGill in 1876, McDonnell went on to become a prominent figure within the Faculty of Medicine before his untimely death at the age of 35. William Osler paid tribute to his friend and colleague in the New York Medical Journal, writing: “Although only thirty-five years old, he [MacDonnell] had reached a position which gave scope to abilities of first-class order and afforded opportunities of impressing upon a large class of students those qualities of mind so essential in the teacher, so priceless to the taught – honesty, system, and painstaking care” (NYMJ, 54: 162, 1891).

Below is a composite portrait of McGill Faculty of Medicine in 1882 from our William Osler Photo Collection. William Osler is standing fourth from left, and Richard Lea MacDonnell stands on the far right. A new Richard L. MacDonnell Collection (P133) has been created in the Osler Library Archives, and these dissection books along with several fascinating scrapbooks put together by MacDonnell are now available to view upon request.

“McGill University Faculty of Medicine at its Semicentennial, 1882”, William Osler Photo Collection, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, CUS_033-011_P. Standing, from left to right, are Thomas G. Roddick, George Ross, William E. Scott, William Osler, Francis J. Shepherd, William Gardner, George W. Campbell, Gilbert Prout Girdwood, Frank Buller, and Richard L. MacDonell. Sitting, from left to right, are Robert Palmer Howard, William Wright, John William Dawson, Duncan C. MacCallum, Robert Craik, and George E. Fenwick.

Homecoming

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McGill Faculty of Medicine reunion programme and pin from October 8, 1926 with songbook inside. Part of the Osler Library Archive Collections.

Events, talks, and tours are happening all weekend long from October 27-30 at the Faulty of Medicine in celebration of McGill Homecoming 2016.

This year’s reunion welcomes milestone anniversaries for MDCM graduate years ending in 1 and 6.

Full events listing for alumni can be found here, and further information here.

Open Doors at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine (free event) is happening Friday 1:30-2:30pm, and Open Doors at the Maude Abbott Medical Museum (free event) is Friday 3:00-5:00pm. Rediscover the library’s treasure trove of rarebooks and medical atlases, and also take in one of the best historical collections of anatomical and pathological materials in North America.

Wishing the alumni an enjoyable and memory-filled weekend as they journey back to their McGill roots!

Winter Session 1878-1879

Think you’ve got a busy schedule this semester? Here’s what Winter Session 1878-1879 looked like for McGill’s Faculty of Medicine. The course schedule shown below belonged to Sir William Osler – Professor of Physiology, General Pathology, Histological & Physiological Demonstration (1st and 2nd year) and Pathological Demonstration that year. This historical piece of mcgilliana is part of our P100 collection – a collection that recently received a handful of new acquisitions generously donated from an Osler family relative (more on these new acquisitions coming soon!).

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Instructors (listed in alphabetical order): Dr. Buller, Professor Craik, Professor Dawson, Professor Fenwick, Professor Gardner, Professor Godfrey, Professor Howard, Dr. MacDonnell, Professor McCallum, Professor Osler, Professor Roddick, Professor Ross, Professor Scott, Dr. Shepherd, & Professor Wright.

 

Courses (listed in no particular order): Anatomy, Hygiene, Medical Jurisprudence, Ophthalmic Clinic, Botany, Surgery, Practical Chemistry, Pathological Demonstration, Midwifery, Clinical Medicine, Clinical Surgery, Materia Medica, Histological & Physiological Demonstration, Physiology, General Pathology, Practice of Medicine, Chemistry, & Practical Anatomy.

Matriculation, 150 Years Ago

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McGill graduate Dr. Alexander Dougall Blackader (1847-1932)

As students and faculty at McGill begin a new academic year this week, we thought we’d offer a historic glimpse into what matriculation looked like 150 years ago. The leather case shown below belonged to pioneering Canadian pediatrician, Dr. Alexander Dougall Blackader (1847-1932). It was used to contain his many matriculation and membership cards from his student days at McGill from 1866-1871. In those days, students were provided with official cards for each course, in addition to their McGill ID/matric and faculty cards.

Several years after graduation, Blackader joined McGill’s Faculty of Medicine as Instructor of Diseases of Children and eventually became Professor of Pediatrics and Acting Dean from 1915-1918. As one of the first physicians in North America to insist that diseases of children needed to be recognized as a specialty, Blackader was an instrumental figure in organizing Canada’s first pediatric clinic at the Montreal General Hospital. Over the years, Blackader held several positions at MGH before retiring and becoming editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The Osler Library houses a collection of Blackader’s personal and professional material including papers, lectures, autobiographical notes and diaries (P093). Here’s to a great 2016-17!

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Alexander Dougall Blackader’s leather case from his student days, 1866-1871.

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Alexander Dougall Blackader’s many matriculation/ID cards and membership cards from his student days at McGill, 1866-1871.

New / Old

1907 was a fiery year in McGill’s history. On April 5th, the Macdonald Engineering building was completely gutted by fire, and less than a fortnight later on April 16th, the first Medical Faculty building (erected 1872) went up in flames, destroying the Medical Library (founded 1823) and the first Medical Museum curated by Maude Abbott.

The Strathcona Building – now known as Strathcona Anatomy & Dentistry – was built in its place, opening its doors in 1909. It became known as the New Medical Building and housed the Medical Museum, Osler Library (which opened in 1929), and the resurrected Maude Abbot Medical Museum.

The following photographs show different floors of the Strathcona Medical Library in beautiful black-and-white detail: the well-lit third floor Reading Room, the librarian’s Cataloguing Room, the book stacks, the Bindery, and the empty shelves of the original Osler Library awaiting the overseas arrival of Sir William’s collection.

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Reading Room, Medical Library, New Medical Building (Strathcona), 1927.

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Cataloguing Room, Medical Library, New Medical Building (Strathcona), 1927.

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Stacks, Medical Library, New Medical Building (Strathcona), 1927.

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Bindery Room, Medical Library, 1927.

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The original Osler Library of the History of Medicine, Strathcona Medical Building, 1927.

“In Flanders fields” at the Osler Library

In celebration of the centennial of this famous World War I poem, we are reposting this blog entry from Remembrance Day 2013. The two contemporary copies of John McCrae’s “In Flanders fields,” one written by the poet himself, housed in our collection will be on view tomorrow at the Osler Library, 3rd floor, McIntyre Medical Building, 3655 Promenade-Sir-William-Osler. Please keep an eye out as well for a special Global News segment tomorrow featuring this important document of Canadian history.


“In Flanders fields the poppies grow / Between the crosses, row on row”

John McCrae’s poem remains one of the most influential pieces of Canadian literature and gives us our most enduring World War I imagery: the red poppies.

Born in Guelph, Ontario, McCrae was a career soldier and practicing physician.FlandersFields Before the war, he worked at the Montreal General and the Royal Victoria Hospital, and taught at McGill. Although McCrae was a trained physician, he joined an army fighting unit at the outbreak of the First World War. There, he experienced some of the first chemical weapons attacks during the second battle of Ypres in Belgium. The story goes that McCrae penned his poem after the burial of a close friend and medical school colleague, when he noticed the poppies growing over the graves. This manuscript, written in McCrae’s hand, was left to the Osler Library among the literary archives of fellow physician and McGillian John Andrew Macphail. In this manuscript, McCrae ends the first line with the word “grow.” This is a change from the published version, in which the line finishes “blow.” McCrae wrote out this copy of the poem in a 1916 letter to a friend, Carleton Noyes, modestly mentioning that this piece had achieved some notoriety.

Photo of John McCrae with his dog, from the Osler Library Prints Collection, OPF000110

Photo of John McCrae with his dog, from the Osler Library Prints Collection, OPF000110

The library also has a second early copy of the poem. It is found in the diary of Clare Gass, which recounts her experiences as a nurse with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in France and England in 1915 and 1916. Gass was born in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, on 18 March 1887. She left home for Montreal to train as a nurse at the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing from 1909 to 1912, working afterwards as a private nurse. After a brief training period in Quebec, she left for Europe in May of 1915 as a Lieutenant nursing sister with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill). In her diary, “In Flanders Field” is copied out in an entry dated October 30th— nearly six weeks before the poem’s first publication in the magazine Punch on December 8, 1915. After that, it quickly became the most popular piece of poetry of the age and its central image an enduring symbol of loss.

“In Flanders fields” at the Osler Library

“In Flanders fields the poppies grow / Between the crosses, row on row”

John McCrae’s poem remains one of the most influential pieces of Canadian literature and gives us our most enduring World War I imagery: the red poppies. Born in Guelph, Ontario, McCrae was a career soldier and practicing physician. Before the war, he worked at the Montreal General and the Royal Victoria Hospital, and taught at McGill. Although McCrae was a trained physician, he joined an army fighting unit at the outbreak of the First World War. FlandersFieldsThere, he experienced some of the first chemical weapons attacks during the second battle of Ypres in Belgium. The story goes that McCrae penned his poem after the burial of a close friend and medical school colleague, when he noticed the poppies growing over the graves. This manuscript, written in McCrae’s hand, was left to the Osler Library among the literary archives of fellow physician and McGillian John Andrew Macphail. In this manuscript, McCrae ends the first line with the word “grow.” This is a change from the published version, in which the line finishes “blow.” McCrae wrote out this copy of the poem in a 1916 letter to a friend, Carleton Noyes, modestly mentioning that this piece had achieved some notoriety.

The library also has a second early copy of the poem. It is found in the diary of Clare Gass, which recounts her experiences as a nurse with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in France and England in 1915 and 1916. Gass was born in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, on 18 March 1887. She left home for Montreal to train as a nurse at the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing from 1909 to 1912, working afterwards as a private nurse. After a brief training period in Quebec, she left for Europe in May of 1915 as a Lieutenant nursing sister with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill). In her diary, “In Flanders Field” is copied out in an entry dated October 30th— nearly six weeks before the poem’s first publication in the magazine Punch on December 8, 1915. After that, it quickly became the most popular piece of poetry of the age.