Dittrick Medical History Center director to lead lecture on med student/cadaver portraits

The Institute for the Science of Origins (ISO) noontime lecture series continues Nov. 2 with “Student Bodies: 19th-century med student cadaver portraiture.” The lecture, led by James Edmonson, director of the Dittrick Medical History Center, will be held Nov. 2 at noon in Ford Auditorium.

Dissection is the rite of passage marking the point at which medical students separate emotionally and intellectually from the paths taken by their non-medical friends. This moment teaches them to objectify the body as an object of study and brings them face to face with the finality of death and the physical dimension of the personal.

Humans often react to strong emotions with humor, and in the 1800s, a genre of slightly underground humor using the new medium of photography emerged—med students posing with their cadavers, often in elaborate tableaux.

Some are inside jokes shared only with other students, while others were attempts to share their viscerally shocking new experience with friends and relatives who followed a more typical path in life.

Some of the 138 rare historical photos Edmonson analyzed for his book Dissection will strike us today as funny or macabre or downright puzzling, but all are fascinating.