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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 290-299

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A Traffic of Dead Bodies

Department of Emergency Medicine and Traumatology, Hartford Hospital, PO Box 5037, 80 Seymour Street, Hartford, CT 06102-5037.

Michael Sappol. A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2002. Pp. 430. $37.50.

A Traffic of Dead Bodies is an ambitious undertaking. (It is difficult to avoid puns on the subject of this monograph. The author himself terms his introductory synopsis of the book "A Skeleton's Key.") It is a study of anatomy, dissection, medical schools, and their legal and illegal roles in body-procurement; the cultural milieu of the 19th-century American scene; and the notions of "anatomical embodiment" and "self-making" that led to "anatomical selfhood" qua (bourgeois) social identity. The author, a historian who is now curator at the National Library ofMedicine, would have had his work cut out for him on a good day. Beginning with early American attitudes towards the dead, especially as shaped by their religious backgrounds, and then moving to the role of anatomical dissection in medical schools, it is a natural jump to the shenanigans—legal and not so legal—used to procure the scarce commodity of "subjects," i.e., available cadavers, usually from the unclaimed or criminal pools of dead bodies. Thence to alternative medicine (including Thomsonian botanical medicine and homeopathy), popular anatomical entrepreneurs and authors, the phenomenon of a book about a young black medical [End Page 290] student named Sammy Tubbs and ministrelsy, and finally popular anatomy in fin-de-siècle America. Concluding remarks, and then Sappol's autopsy on 19th-century anatomical dissection is over.

Since anatomical dissection entails cutting open a previously intact body, it becomes ripe material of almost unlimited sexual potential, especially for postmodernists for whom discursive analysis at times seems a carte blanche opportunity for extravagant interpretation. Therefore, opening and cutting become "penetration," with the word phallic enjoying a resurgence, as it were, rarely seen outside a non-urologic text. Certainly dissection is an activity laden with possibilities for symbolism and metaphor. As Barbara Stafford (1993) points out, dissection was also metaphorically the methodology it employed: "Such excavation stood for an investigative intellectual method that uncovered the duplicity of the world" (47, original italics). Later, she describes "art criticism as metaphoric dissection" (54). Not only is dissection rife with metaphoric opportunity, even the undissected dead body has long been, and continues to be, an object of taboo, ritual, and mystery. It is a liminal object representing the boundaries between life and death, sacred and secular. Sappol rightly spends a great deal of time on these margins—symbolic and literal. Such totemic value of the dead body's integrity has served imaginative writers well. Utilizing the usual respect for the dead body, especially the "recently dead," Richard Selzer (1980) uses the morgue for a particularly lascivious scene of carnal engagement to invert such respect. Katherine Young (1997) interprets the status of the corpse in terms of Bakhtin's ideas of the grotesque and the carnivalesque: "The grotesque body is contrasted to the classical body, modeled, Bakhtin argues, on Greek statues. . . . The dissected body is a grotesque body" (110).

Sappol's agenda is the study of anatomy in 19th-century America and the deconstruction of anatomical dissection in medical and non-medical venues. He essentially takes a Foucauldian view of his project, despite only a few references to Foucault and one of those a polite disagreement with the master (19). Thus, medicine and its gaze are authoritarian techniques to exert power, a technique Foucault extrapolates to other institutions in Western society. Sartre, whose use of gaze (le regard) preceded that of Foucault, is nowhere to be found in this book. This is unfortunate since, as Sappol writes, "The cadaver's invasive smells and fluids offended the principles of refined aesthetics and taste, but, more perilously, 'deadly effluvia' and 'putrid emanations' could poison anatomy students and the surrounding community" (79). Clearly the 19th...


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