Dissection by John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson
Hardcover • 8.5 x 10″ • 208 pages
Photography, history • 138 color photographs • $50
ISBN 978-0-922233-34-2

“This is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen.”
—Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Bonk
“A truly unique and important book.”
—Sherwin Nuland, MD, author of How We Die
Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine: 1880–1930
John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson

Featuring 138 rare, historic photographs, Dissection is a “landmark book” (Ruth Richardson) that reveals a startling piece of American history, the rite of passage into the mysteries of medicine captured in photography.

From the advent of photography in the 19th century and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected: their first patients. The photographs were made in a variety of forms, from proud class portraits to staged dark-humor scenes, from personal documentation to images reproduced on postcards sent in the mail. Poignant, strange, disturbing, and humorous, they are all compelling.

These photographs were made at a time when Victorian societal taboos against intimate knowledge of the human body were uneasily set aside for medical students in pursuit of knowledge that could be gained only in the dissecting room. Dissection, writes Mary Roach, “documents—in archival photographs and informed, approachable prose—a heretofore almost entirely unknown genre, the dissection photograph.”

“Without looking,” writes John Harley Warner, “we cannot see an uncomfortable past and begin to understand the legacies that American doctors and patients live with today.” That uncomfortable past saw the gradual passing of state laws, from 1831 to 1947, to govern the awkward business of cadaver supply—ever inadequate—bringing an end to reliance on professional “resurrectionists,” grave robbing, and dissection as an extended punishment for murder and as a consequence of poverty.

As James Edmonson notes, “Unsettling though these images may be, they are a thread connecting us to the shared experience among medical professionals over generations … As medical schools explore alternatives to human dissection, this rite of passage may disappear.”

Together, the remarkable archival photographs and illuminating essays in Dissection present the astonishing social realities of the pursuit of medical knowledge in 19th- and early-20th-century America.

“This is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen. It documents—in archival photographs and informed, approachable prose—a heretofore almost entirely unknown genre, the dissection photograph. The perfect coffee table book for all the households I'd most liek to be invited for coffee.”
—Mary Roach, author of Stiff and Bonk
“The distinguished historians John Harley Warner and James Edmonson have gifted us with a truly unique and important book. The text and photographs are not only fascinating to contemplate, but they document a period in medical education in a way that is matched by no other contribution.”
—Sherwin Nuland, MD, author of How We Die
“What a spectacular book! Warner and Edmonson have amassed an extraordinary array of old dissecting-room photographs, profoundly revealing of doctors' socialization in the past, and the slavery of the slab. Together, the authors have created a landmark book in the history of dissection in America.”
—Ruth Richardson, D.Phil., author of Death, Dissection and the Destitute

John Harley Warner, PhD, is an historian who focuses chiefly on American medicine and science. In 1986 he joined the Yale faculty with a primary appointment in the School of Medicine, where he is now Avalon Chair of the Section of the History of Medicine.

James M. Edmonson, PhD, is Chief Curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.