The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Early twentieth-century dissection methods:  A case study from the early years of the University of Utah’s School of Medicine


Antiquities Section, Utah Division of State History

April 16, 2020 , Platinum Ballroom Add to calendar

Construction on the George Thomas Building (GTB) at the University of Utah in 2016 resulted in the discovery of commingled human remains. Evidence of craniotomies, medical laboratory glassware (ca. 1900 to 1930), and historic research suggest the remains are anatomical specimens from the University of Utah’s School of Medicine (UUSM), likely from the period between the school’s establishment (1905) and completed construction of the GTB (1935). Research was undertaken to determine how perimortem alterations observed in the skeletal assemblage compare to documentation of early twentieth-century dissection standards, as well as UUSM specific practices. Standard osteological methods of recording and analysis were applied to GTB skeletal assemblage. The results of this analysis were then compared to historic documentation relevant to dissection and the UUSM. These comparisons produced interesting results. Marks (cuts, sawing, chiseling) displayed in the skeletal remains are locationally and directionally identical to those described for craniotomies, laminectomies, and shoulder dissections in anatomy texts from the time. Course catalogs (1906-07 and 1918-19) indicate the UUSM taught six or seven anatomy courses focused on dissection of particular body regions; this is reflected in the assemblage - there is a varied number of skeletal elements, suggesting they were buried as bodily portions as opposed to whole cadavers. The GTB remains provide direct evidence of dissection consistent with methodology common to the period, while the nature of the assemblage affirms the regional anatomy pedagogy implemented by the early UUSM. Such findings provide valuable insight into early twentieth-century medical school practices.

The analysis of the skeletal remains was funded by the University of Utah Campus Planning Department.

Slides/Poster (pdf)