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.

 

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!

With Wit and Whimsy

We recently came across some amusing caricatures while processing new additions to the Cecil Percy Martin fonds and the Kelen Family collection in the Osler archives. It’s no surprise that university lecturers make ideal subjects for this kind of expression!

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Caricature of Cecil Percy Martin, St. Patrick’s Day, 1941.

Dr. Cecil Percy Martin (1892-1977) was a popular Professor of Anatomy at McGill, well-known for his compelling speaking ability, and his Irish wit. This caricature is part of Martin’s personal scrapbooks that were recently donated to the archives. Alongside clippings of medical articles, postcards, and family photographs, he included this caricature that was left on his desk by a student on St. Patrick’s Day, 1941.

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Dr. Robert Knox caricature, ca. 1825. Artist unknown.

Dr. Robert Knox (1792-1862) was a nineteenth century Scottish (Edinburgh) anatomist known for his lectures and dissections that were usually open to public viewing with the purchase of a ticket. Knox was not known for his sense of humour. He had a particularly dark reputation for side-stepping the law, using undeniably questionable means in order to attain his ‘fresh’ cadavers.

This depiction of Dr. Knox posing with a skeleton hand is thought to have been drawn by one of his students circa 1825. Several copies of the caricature are in existence. This particular one was given to Dr. W. W. Francis (1878-1959), the first Osler librarian, in 1925 while Francis was in Oxford cataloguing the Bibliotheca Osleriana. It is now part of the Kelen Family fonds, donated to the Osler Library by Francis’ granddaughter.

Another caricature included in the Kelen Family fonds is one sketched by W. W. Francis himself. The image exaggerates and pokes fun at his weight gain following his recovery from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1911. “Mount Vernon” was the name of the boarding house that Francis occupied at St. Agathe Sanatorium, The Laurentian Society for the Treatment and Control of Tuberculosis. A “glove stretcher” was a wooden peg, shaped more-or-less like a pair of scissors, used by nineteenth century ladies who struggled to put on their leather gloves that had shrunk in the wash water.

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W. W. Francis’ self-drawn caricature upon leaving St. Agathe Sanatorium, 1911.

The ability to laugh at oneself is an important component of a person’s mental health and well-being. As the Irish proverb goes: A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything!

Osler Fellows Library

The Osler Fellowship is programme run by the Office of Physicianship Curriculum Development. The fellows are members of the medical faculty who work with students to encourage them reflect on the role of the doctor as healer and professional. They also happen to be very well read! We have a number of books given to the library by Osler Fellows touching on many different areas of medical humanities. You can see their book recommendations by using the list function in McGill’s WorldCat catalogue.

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First, enter the WorldCat catalogue from the library homepage.

 

 

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Then on the next page, click on “Search for Lists” on the drop-down box under “Search.”

 

 

Search for “Osler Fellows Library” and voila! You can even read in the catalogue what the fellows have to say about why they chose a particular book. Most of the books are held in the Osler Library, some in other libraries, but just note that those held in Life Sciences are currently unavailable.

 

P.S. Anybody can make a list of resources in the WorldCat catalogue. Need to keep track of course readings? Have some great sci fi recommendations to share? Check out this YouTube video that shows you how to create lists. (The look and feel of the catalogue here are McGill, are slightly different than in the video, but the actions are the same.)

 

McGill class of 1913

Fresh off of convocation 2013 (see photos here), I thought we’d take a look at McGill grads from 1913.

In 1913…

the McGill Daily was 2 years oldDaily

women’s ties were apparently the height of fashionwomensties

William Osler had recently been knighted and had a new publication out: “The Evolution of Modern Medicine”osler

the Faculty of Medicine had a new, state-of-the-art buildingFacultyofMed2

and there was promising student research in “electricity in medicine” (hint: Hot Air Hutton) electricityinmedicine

Images from the McGill Yearbooks digitization project.

 

New resource: Annual Announcements of the Medical Faculty of McGill College

Early Canadiana Online is an online collection featuring digitized books, articles, pamphlets, and government publications, over 80,000 items published in Canada from the 1600s to the 1950s. Their Health and Medicine collection now contains 9 complete issues of the Annual Announcement of the Medical Faculty of McGill College from 1852/53-1862/63.

The Annual Announcements were used to lay out the course of lectures for the following academic year and update faculty and students on changes in regulations. They included lists of current students and graduates for the given year.

Want to know how much your medical education cost 160 years ago?

The 1853/54 session announcements reports:

“The fee for each class shall be three pounds, Halifax currency; except for the Anatomical and Chemical classes, for each of which the fee shall be three pounds fifteen shillings, of the same currency; and for the classes of Clinical Medicine and Surgery, and of Medical Jurisprudence, for each of which the fee shall be two pound ten shillings.” (p. 9)