The Catholic Brahmin and the Anatomy Act of 1898: Thomas Dwight and the Normalization of the Medical Cadaver Supply in Late Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts
AbstractThis study builds on unexplored correspondence between Harvard Parkman Professor of Anatomy Thomas Dwight (1843–1911) and Harvard University president Charles Eliot (1834–1926) regarding the modification of Massachusetts anatomy law that resulted in the 1898 An Act Relative to the Promotion of Anatomical Science. The correspondence provides the project’s central research question: What conditions existed to allow the two Harvard academics, principally Dwight, to manufacture a coordinated campaign to legalize the mandatory surrender of Massachusetts’s unclaimed dead? Massachusetts was the first American state to pass an anatomy act in 1831 that provided for the optional surrender of the state-managed dead to Massachusetts medical schools. This act, while a triumph for the Massachusetts medical education community, failed to create a consistent and reliable cadaver supply as body surrender was left to the discretion of institution superintendents. The Dwight-Eliot 1898 law solved this concern by making cadaver surrender mandatory. This thesis is an analysis of the conditions and motivations that allowed for the development and passage of the 1898 An Act Relative to the Promotion of Anatomical Science. It does so by exploring a series of sub-research questions, pursued through the published writings and unpublished correspondence of Thomas Dwight, as the act’s main proponent and author. Dwight’s works are further framed and contextualized through published descriptions of the multiple revisions of the state’s anatomy acts and the various annual reports of the boards and institutions that managed the state dead.
This analysis posits several distinction conclusions. It argues that the 1883 scandal at the Tewksbury almshouse augmented and made public the already antagonistic application of the 1831 anatomy act in Massachusetts, and in order to limit this resistance and to develop a systematic cadaver supply chain, Dwight and Eliot collaborated on a deliberate effort to develop a mandatory surrender law for the unclaimed dead. This effort benefited both men in that it gave Dwight his reliable and legal cadaver supply and provided Eliot with a necessary reform in his campaign to modernize Harvard Medical School. It further argues that Dwight’s dual-identity as a legacy member of the Boston elite and as a Catholic was vital in politically drafting and directing the mandatory anatomy act through the late nineteenth century Massachusetts legislature, and that the success of the law directly fueled his anatomical scholarship. Lastly, Dwight’s efforts created a more ethical and transparent cadaver, creating an accountable and trackable body that often ended its scientific journey with burial.
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