On October 27, 1883, about a dozen men, armed with spades and shovels, snuck into Mount Olivet Cemetery in Baltimore, hoping to dig up a body. Their efforts were to no avail. The cemetery’s keeper fired shots, startling the vandals, who ran away. An hour later, pistols sent another group running from the very same grave.
There was a thriving business in dead bodies back then. Medical schools relied on body snatchers for a steady supply of cadavers for research and to lure prospective students. As John Harley Warner wrote in Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880—1930, cadavers gave doctors-in-training rare hands-on experience and gave schools an edge over competitors that taught by textbook only. The bodies—supplied through the black market—also helped doctors figure out why things went wrong, perhaps shedding light on how we die—or how we can postpone it.
The autopsy business isn’t what it used to be. For one, the body-snatcher industry has been replaced by a legitimate process that includes, among other things, obtaining permission from family members. And yet, the notion of learning from autopsies is a dying industry. It shouldn’t be.
In this week’s New York Times, Dr. Sandeep Juahar makes a good point. He notes that fifty years ago, autopsies were done on half the people who died in hospitals. Today it’s about one in ten. You may think—as lots of doctors do—that autopsies are no longer necessary, what with all the imaging tools and lab tests available. But they are. Jauhar notes that hospitals that do the most autopsies also make the fewest diagnostic mistakes. It’s not quite cause and effect, but does suggest that we may be learning a thing or two from the autopsies that are preventing further mistakes. “Despite the emphasis on metrics and data in medicine today, we ignore perhaps the most important information of all: what we can see for ourselves,” he writes.
As for that coveted dead body of 1887? That was poor Blanche Gray, a Fat Lady in the circus who died at the young age of 27. Her death was just as much of a show as her life, with hordes of neighbors ogling at the crane that needed to lift all 500 pounds of her from her room in the Freak Show museum all the way to the cemetery.
During those fledgling days of endocrinology, doctors were eager to learn more about the glands that secreted the juices (soon to be named hormones) that control our bodies and behavior. Blanche, well, she stayed dead and buried, never to be exhumed to a Baltimore lab—despite several attempts. But the field of endocrinology would blossom without her.
Sandeep Jauhar became a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times in March 2015. A practicing cardiologist, he earned a Ph.D. in experimental physics at U.C. Berkeley before going on to study medicine at Washington University in St Louis. He has been writing regularly about medicine for the Times since 1998.