Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Davidge Hall

The Museum of Public Works has tragically closed due to budget constraints, so we spent the afternoon poking around Davidge Hall - the first and oldest continuously used medical school building in the US. Here were the highlights:

The acoustically phenomenal dissection chamber...if you stand in the very center of the room, your own voice is reflected back from every surface of the peeling and coffered ceiling. I stood in the center and listened to myself sigh dramatically and snap my gum obnoxiously. It was annoying. I annoyed myself.

What happened in the dissection chamber? Dissection, of course. According to contemporary letters from school deans, the janitor was a top-notch body snatcher, "as handy with a spade as with any broom." This janitor was *so* good, the dean offered to send cadavers up and down the East coast for the mere cost of $50. That money went more towards shipping materials than for handling fees -- after all, it took GALLONS AND GALLONS of WHISKEY to pickle the bodies, and a STURDY BARREL to ship them in.
This is one of the actual barrels, on display next to a desiccated and uncapped body in a dusty corner of the third floor of the oldest medical education building in the nation.
Actually, this corner room is where students would cluster around the mummified corpses - it's a tiny room, I can't imagine cramming together by candlelight over these bodies.

Here's the thing...this kind of behavior was considered as reprehensible then as it is today. Doctors, and especially those doctors studying, I don't know, treppaning techniques, by stealing, pickling, and then desecrating Great Aunt Mary (and frequently RE-SELLING THE PICKLING WHISKEY to make back some of the money) were vilified in general opinion and occasionally mobs would storm the medical school. Davidge Hall was originally surrounded by high walls, and included this hidden circular staircase that acted as a secret passage to get students and faculty out of the dissection hall and out the back door. Here, a modern-day doctor recreates these tense moments: