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ETSU anthropologist studies historic macabre fascination with ‘Race, Bodies and Medical Spectacle’

Contributed • Jun 14, 2019 at 5:48 PM

Why are people fascinated by those they perceive as especially “different?” How have people with physical anomalies been exploited by medicine throughout history for both science and profit?

These are some of the questions East Tennessee State University anthropologist Melissa Schrift is exploring in “Race, Bodies and Medical Spectacle in 19th Century Sideshows,” a project funded by a $10,000 grant from the university’s Research Development Committee.

“This project looks at bodies and the way they’re used in medicine, particularly anatomy,” Schrift said. “I’m interested in bodies both as medical specimen and as spectacle because historically, those two things were often conflated in ways that they’re not necessarily today.”

Schrift, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, initially became interested in this topic several years ago when she visited London in conjunction with a conference paper presentation.

While there, she visited several medical museums, including the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, the basis of which is the collection of specimens amassed by the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793).

According to biographical material on the RCS website, “Hunter believed that surgeons should understand how the body adapted to and compensated for damage due to injury, disease or environmental changes,” and he “encouraged students … to carry out experimental research and to apply the knowledge gained to the treatment of patients.”

Describing Hunter as something of a “mad scientist,” Schrift explained that “he was working in a period when it was a ‘free for all,’ and he was driven by curiosity and experimentation. He amputated and dissected and put things together, using animal specimens and eventually human specimens. But through those experimentations, he found out a lot about the human body.”

Among the specimens in Hunter’s collection was the body of the famous “Irish Giant,” Charles Byrne (1761-1783), a 7-foot-7-inch man who traveled and appeared as a spectacle by his own choice owing to his financial situation. Knowing he was dying and that anatomists were interested in his body, Byrne made arrangements to be buried at sea.

However, Hunter used the services of a “body snatcher” to obtain Byrne’s body and kept it in secret for a few years. During that time, Hunter dissected Byrne’s body before eventually putting the skeleton on public display.

In her current research, Schrift found herself drawn back to the case of Charles Byrne and other notable cases, such as that of Sarah Baartman, a South African woman known by the derogatory term “Hottentot Venus” because of her unusual genitalia, and that of George and Willie Muse, African American albino brothers who were taken from their home and made to perform as “sideshow freaks” in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Such cases, Schrift says, combine her varied interests in medical history, bioethics, the human body and cultural ideas about the afterlife.

For her research, she traveled to various places, from Florida to Scotland and England, where she visited more than a dozen museums and archives to learn more about such cases and various topics surrounding them, including the practice of body snatching and the work of anatomists, as well as public reaction to the same.

“Most of us, I discovered, have this idea that there is always something worse than death,” Schrift said, “and that is how our bodies are treated when we’re dead. That’s counterintuitive, because why should we care? We’re dead. But it has to do with bodily integrity and resting at peace.

“Whether it’s a Christian-based belief or a more general folk belief, we all have this understanding that our bodies should be at peace in whatever we conceive of as the afterlife.”

Schrift visited graveyards in Edinburgh and other locales in Scotland, where many 17th and 18th-century graves were protected by iron fences to keep out body snatchers, whose work was all too common to supply the demand of anatomists for subjects for dissection. At that time, she added, dissections often took place in storefront anatomy shops and theaters, where the public, as well as students, could view the proceedings.

“People were paid to get corpses for anatomists. It was a macabre trade, but in fact, there was some legitimacy to it – in the same way that we use cadavers today, students had to learn through working on bodies,” Schrift said. “There was an intense paranoia about bodies being stolen, and there are all kinds of graveyards covered with these graves encased in iron bars and in grave houses.

“In 1832,” she continued, “the Anatomy Act was passed to try to cut down on grave-robbing and allow scientist to access bodies of dead people, but that resulted in a class-based trade in which unclaimed bodies from almshouses, hospitals and prisons were used by anatomists.”

Schrift will share what she has learned with students in “Anthropology of the Body,” a seminar course offered this fall in ETSU’s culture and health minor curriculum.

In this class, she and her students will explore how “different” bodies have been exploited in popular culture and science, how organs and body parts are exchanged today, how technological advances have changed ideas about the body, how different cultures understand death and mourning and other topics.

Schrift also plans to apply for a writing fellowship that would allow her to spend a year writing a book based on her research.

“I’ve always kind of blurred the line between academic writing and writing for popular audiences,” she said, “and this is one where I’ll lean toward trying to appeal to both audiences.”

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