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Addressing the Evidence of Historical Medical Grave Robbing: Past Practices and their Influence on modern memory and Western Uses of the Body
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In this thesis I compare two cases where human remains were found on the grounds of two historical medical colleges, the Medical College of Georgia and the Medical College of Virginia. These remains are presumed to be the remnants of dissected corpses from nineteenth century medical education. I will address how these two medical schools, among many other teaching institutions of the nineteenth century, procured and used African American bodies for dissection far more often than white bodies. This study will also look at the local reaction to the twentieth century discoveries at the two colleges. Between the two cases, the Medical College of Georgia appears to have been less involved with reburial and handled the identification of the remains with less public input than the Medical College of Virginia. Why does there appear to be a discrepancy between the two campuses and their treatment of victims of nineteenth century medical abuses? Is the lack of attention a case of collective public and academic embarrassment over past misdeeds? Is the difference between the two cases due to different recovery protocols or techniques that are more advanced in one case or the other? The discovery of skeletal remains at historical colleges is not an uncommon occurrence. Many of the remains uncovered at historical colleges, including the remains found in Virginia and Georgia, provide insight into the anatomical medical and dissection training in the United States, a practice that created intense conflict between the public and medical educators. I look at the history of dissection, the abuses of the corpse in pursuit of medical education, and finally the lingering issues of uses of the body in Western society. I argue that dissection in the nineteenth century demonstrates not only racism but also violence against the bodies of the poor and African Americans. Anatomy laws in the nineteenth century and the twentieth century display relationships within social structures that leave the poor, indigent, and African American populations powerless and vulnerable in death. It is important to investigate these activities in particular because of the nineteenth century attitudes towards poverty, and more importantly, death in poverty. I also show how this postmortem structural violence effects the living, particularly the impoverished families that seek proper burials for their loved ones.