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Book review
Dissection: photographs of a rite of passage in American medicine 1880—1930
  1. Lisa O'Sullivan
  1. Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, UK; History Department, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lisa O'Sullivan, Department of History, A14 - Quadrangle, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia; lisa.osullivan{at}

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Edited by John Harley Warner, James M Edmonson. . Published by Blast Books, New York, 2009. ISBN-978‐0922233342

Hands poised above a cadaver, a group of students in gowns and bowler hats stare at the camera; a medical student embraces a skeleton in her room; behind dissectors admiring their work, an unnamed black woman looks on, mop in hand; in ‘A Student's Dream’, flayed cadavers peer over the inert body of a student laid out on before them, on the table where they had perhaps themselves been dissected.

Such images form the core of a remarkable exploration of the dissecting room in American medicine. These elaborately staged tableaux offer an important and until now largely obscured insight into the importance of anatomy to the training and identity of medical students in late 19th and early 20th America. Yale medical historian John Harley Warner and James M Edmonson, curator of Dittrick Medical History Centre at Case Western Reserve University, have brought together over 130 of these images in this impressive and challenging volume. Taken together they provide a powerful and moving vision of medical students' relationship to death, the body and their own practice.

Edmonson notes that while this genre of photography appears to have been present in many European traditions, it seems to have been particularly prominent in the USA. His reflections on ‘the rich totemic value’ (p195) of the dissection portrait in American medicine are open about the many features of the genre which can only be inferred. With only limited information attached to many examples, Edmonson carefully charts their …

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  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.