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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 571-576

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Our Corpses, Our Selves:
Anatomy and Identity in American Society

Barbara Cutter

Michael Sappol. A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. xii + 430 pp. Figures, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

In 1884, when twenty-three-year-old Hannah Stout died of a rare disease, her family was afraid to bury her in the local cemetery. They knew that doctors frequently engaged in grave robbing, or paid others to do so for them. And they were certain that doctors would be particularly anxious to obtain Hannah's body for dissection or public exhibition because of the unusual nature of her disease. To thwart potential grave robbers, the family buried Hannah just outside their Indiana farmhouse, where they could keep a close watch on the corpse. As Michael Sappol points out in A Traffic of Dead Bodies, this story reveals two important points about anatomy and nineteenth-century American culture and society. First, it suggests that the dead body had become an important commodity for nineteenth-century medical students and doctors who wished to learn anatomy. Second, the fact that families went to such lengths to protect the corpses of their relatives suggests that the dead body held great meaning for nineteenth-century Americans; it had become part of the "self." An insult or injury to a corpse became an insult to that person's identity. The dead body, then, became an important commodity at precisely the same moment that new concepts of the self suggested that dead bodies should be outside and protected from the marketplace. It was in this context, Sappol argues, that anatomy and dissection became important and highly contentious topics in nineteenth-century America.

Sappol uses these two intertwined themes—the medical profession's focus on anatomy and Americans' newly anatomical understanding of selfhood—to shed light on two major topics in nineteenth-century American history: the professionalization of medicine and the creation of the modern self. Specifically, Sappol's intent is to explore the ways in which "the anatomical acquisition, dissection, and representation of bodies . . . contributed to the making of professional, classed, sexual, racial, national, and speciated selves" (p. 1). [End Page 571]

The book takes a loosely chronological and thematic approach, covering the period from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. The first chapter provides the cultural context for the rise of anatomy. It examines a transformation in ideas about the body and death, from the early modern world in which the body was "discursively identified" with death, to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when "the body came to be regarded as identical to the self" (p. 43). Sappol links this change to the rise of a market-oriented economy, the formation of new classes and new social identities, and the beginning of a culture of consumption, which all accompanied the new capitalist economy. In this age of constant and unpredictable economic change, Sappol argues, "social identities were precarious and . . . hard to maintain . . . [but] death offered the opportunity to dramatize and fix social identity via deathbed and funerary ritual" (p. 15-6). Funerals became more expensive and more elaborate as Americans increasingly equated a respectable death with a respectable life.

In the same period, Sappol explains, the practice of medicine was transforming from a "trade" to a "profession" and a "science" (p. 53). In contrast to scholars such as Paul Starr and Kenneth Ludmerer, Sappol suggests that medicine had become a respectable profession by the antebellum era, arguing that the rise of anatomical medicine in the late eighteenth century, rather than microbiology in the 1870s and 1880s, began the professionalization of medicine. Sappol argues that anatomy was the first "science" upon which medicine rested its claim to be a profession. Anatomical knowledge became the centerpiece of medical knowledge. And, as he is careful to point out, the focus on anatomy was not simply imposed on doctors or the public by the medical establishment. The public began to...


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