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Portraits Capture Life In Dissecting Class

May 2, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Visual explorations of how the human body works have had us riveted since before Leonardo da Vinci sketched the famous Vitruvian man sometime around 1487. That fascination is the focus of what may be one of the most gruesome coffee table books ever.

Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930 contains hundreds of pictures of medical students posing with the cadavers they were learning to dissect.

These photos were something of an underground genre, says author John Warner, a professor of medical history at Yale. You wouldn't see one in a doctor's waiting room, but they were taken and treasured, and sometimes even passed around as Christmas cards.

In the portraits, students frequently decorated their dissecting tables with mottos like "He lived for others, but died for us," and "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." Sometimes they posed the cadavers standing up or brandishing their own dissecting tools.

While it may be shocking to see medical students horsing around with dead bodies, Warner says, the photos were a statement of collective identity and a way for these young students to deal with an obvious reminder of their own mortality.

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