Michael Sappol. A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. xii + 430 pp. $24.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-05925-9.
Reviewed by Deborah Kuhn McGregor (Departments of History and Women's Studies, University of Illinois at Springfield)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 2002)
Living with the Dead House
Living with the Dead House
A Traffic of Dead Bodies focuses on anatomy and dissection but brings a much wider context to bear. Those who pick up this book will be pleasantly surprised by the myriad connections Michael Sappol is able to establish. His academic background as a Ph.D. in history and his current position as Curator at the National Library of Medicine combine admirably in this work which began as his dissertation. The book draws from medical history, beginning in the late eighteenth century but also analyzes works of fiction and popular literature, arguing for anatomy as ideology, in particular as a key to the rise of bourgeois culture in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Sappol puts forth an intent to present a cultural history of nineteenth-century America using anatomy and anatomical practices as the focal point. In this way the author begins to weave a rich history connecting medicine to bodily economies, social class and the creation of an embodied bourgeois self. The book depends upon an impressive and wide-ranging spectrum of primary sources, derived from a focus that rests simply on anatomy in all its presentations during this period. There is much interesting material here including a history of anatomy riots (which were much more common than one might suppose) and a portrait of antebellum medical education that paints medical students' obligations of dissection as ritualistic. The potential of a singular focus on anatomy is realized in its ability to bring to bear all perspectives, patient and practitioner, allopath and homeopath.
Through a lens of body, life and death, Sappol uncovers a social history of human hierarchy and medical authority. Arguing that burial practices can define an individual's social class, in particular burial in a potter's field or the legal assignment of a prisoner's cadaver to the uses of medicine, he goes on to trace the importance of establishing medical practitioners as dissectors and Others as the dissected. So following this line of reasoning, medicine becomes the mind and the patient the body. Probably the direction here is clear by now; the argument moves towards issues of gender and race, eventually arguing that the female body and the black body provided the archetypes.
At the same time, and not surprisingly, Sappol maintains a steadfast emphasis on social class. He demonstrates the commerce in bodies but also the contradictions and variations among the bourgeois and the proletarian classes. Discussion provides glimpses into the working-class preoccupation, by the late nineteenth century, with anatomy and the popularity of a freak show atmosphere with anatomical remains. Sappol also uses conflict within the ranks of the middle and upper classes over anatomy laws and their propriety with the unlikely embrace from some of the working class and the disapproval of members of what would eventually be the bourgeoisie.
For medical history a significant contribution here is the emphasis on the transformative effect on medical education of the burgeoning of dissection and anatomy. This happened during the 1820s and 1830s, a time often cited as abysmal and empty for medical students, when there were few therapies and little consistency in medical licensing. Sappol asserts that anatomical practices were key to giving medicine a new-found authority. Dissection created an entree into cultural practices of burial that led doctors to separate themselves from the rest of society on the grounds of logic and reasoning. Religion had nothing to do with the body of the deceased and medical schools needed dead bodies to teach students. Despite the fact that grave-robbing and body-snatching were in themselves ritualistic, medicine claimed that common burial practices were superstitious, based simply on magic. By bridging the living with the dead, medical practice became "magical anti-magic" (p. 76). Doctors came to shape cultural practices.
The latter chapters of the book look at the defining of the bourgeoisie and the role played by popular interest in anatomy. Sappol connects the creation of self with the social phenomenon of bourgeois culture and argues that sex education and lay lectures in anatomy were part of a new vision of the embodied self. Drawing from a metaphor of geography and boundaries early established in the book with the discussion of dissection and the concomitant changes in medicine arising from anatomy, he narrates the emergence of a physical and material sense of self. Dr. Edward Foote's story of Sammy Tubbs provides material for one chapter in which Sappol's argument is well documented. A young black boy (embodying stereotypes of blacks as children yet also offering the promise of change through education) teaches lessons in anatomy, showing the way to acquire self-education and the wonders of dissection of lesser creatures, in this case his pet monkey.
Sappol draws heavily from a Foucauldian and a postmodernist framework, especially relying on metaphor and language as evidence. Here a limitation to his perspective is visible as there is little investigation into the significance of anatomy and dissection for the creation of scientific medicine as we know and experience it today. In other words a cultural perspective betrays to a degree a skepticism about modern medical science and by necessity detracts from assessment of the influence of anatomical practices on the very practice of medicine.
In terms of the connection with literature in this area today A Traffic of Dead Bodies provides context by emphasizing anatomy and exploring its meaning, particularly in terms of American culture of the nineteenth century. One way to consider the implications of Sappol's argument is to compare it with the recent book by Susan Wells, Out of the Dead House. Wells sets out to look at women physicians who were deeply involved in the dissection of cadavers and in the study of anatomy and finds women who were part of the clamor for anatomy in the nineteenth century. Regina Morantz-Sanchez also writes about Mary Dixon Jones, a woman gynecologist of the late nineteenth century, who studied anatomical parts and kept specimens from surgeries in order to further her medical knowledge. While Sappol's work does not obviate the presence of women in medicine, it does ignore women practitioners for the most part.
Like any well-done historical study A Traffic of Dead Bodies raises many questions even as it provides surprising reversals to current assumptions. This book is artfully done, a thorough-going investigation of an intriguing topic. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
. Susan Wells, Out of the Dead House: Nineteenth-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).
. Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
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Deborah Kuhn McGregor. Review of Sappol, Michael, A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America.
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