Death Stories: Slice, Part 4

Earlier, we were sitting in Spitzer’s office on the same floor.  It seemed like a typical professor’s lair--metal shelves neatly packed with books and journals, a desk stacked with papers.  As we talked, Spitzer’s beeper went off several times.  He noted area codes he recognized so he could return the calls later.  The unfamiliar numbers he ignored.  He spoke with enthusiasm, but also with the ready examples and metaphors of a man who had explained his business many times.  He used rhetorical questions as segues.  “What do I mean by that?” he would say, and launch into the explication.  The window behind him showed a glimmering ribbon of traffic bisecting the green swath of Denver, and behind that a mountain like a jagged molar.

It was during this conversation that Spitzer first mentioned the uniform tanness of cadavers.  He was telling what parts of his work disturbed him on a visceral level.  Although his first dissection ten years before was “traumatic,” cadavers generally did not fit his category of disturbing things, and he posited that the reason was their dissimilarity from him.  The typical anatomy-class cadaver represents the remains of a person seventy-odd years of age in some sort of poor health (otherwise they wouldn’t be cadavers).  Much of the muscle tissue has wasted.  Embalming has leached the color and turned things the consistency of soggy leather.  But when the cadaver happened to be closer to his own age, Spitzer started to feel unsettled.   He told about the difficulty of “harvesting a leg” from an atypically fresh corpse.  As for Jernigan, it wasn’t disturbing at all to dismantle his corpse.  Most of the time Spitzer and his colleagues were looking at no more than a frozen cross-sectional surface like the round steak.

Spitzer’s vita shows diverse degrees--in chemistry, nuclear engineering, radiology, anatomy.  “I didn’t care what science I was in,” he said.  In his youth he dismissed biology because he thought it lacked definite answers.  Medicine was worse: messy both epistemologically and otherwise.  He preferred the mathematical accuracy of, say, chemistry.  But the exciting work in chemistry was happening in the East.  “I’m a Westerner,” he said, and then added, “the West is more real.”  Radiology convinced him medicine could be studied with the sort of precision he liked.  This discipline is, he pointed out, simply “slicing up bodies electronically”--while they’re still alive.


Ancient Egyptian embalming techniques required that a corpse’s belly be sliced open and the viscera removed.  The priest who performed this particular task was chased out of the room afterwards and cursed, a ceremonial acknowledgement of transgression.  This ritual encapsulates an attitude that has prevailed in the West for millennia: the interior of the body is taboo, but may be observed in certain highly controlled, ceremonial contexts.  Such opportunities for observation arose in (to mention two historically diverse examples) the Medieval practice of searching the corpses of suspected saints for divine wonders (jewels or an unusual absence of rot) or in the Elizabethan practice of drawing and quartering supposed traitors.

Such events, however, contributed little to a systematic knowledge of the interior landscape.  Even the limited forms of surgery performed in Ancient Greece occurred in a state of relative anatomical ignorance. The dissection of bodies for scientific or educational purposes began with Aristotle, who worked only on monkeys and other animals.  The Greeks of his era found human dissection literally inconceivable—think of Antigone, a drama built entirely on the anguish of a sister for the mutilation of her brother’s corpse.  But Aristotle claimed that human anatomy could be largely deduced by analogy with that of other animals.  He also advocated the observation of emaciated people, whose veins and bones stood out well enough to be mapped.

But colonial exploits brought opportunity. Human dissection was first practiced in the third century BCE in Alexandria, where the invading Greeks had fewer scruples about using the bodies of indigenous people. Physicians like Erisistratus and Herophilus cut into the corpses of criminals and non-Greeks. (Executed criminals have been a source for anatomical study ever since.) According to some accounts, they also performed vivisection on the living, on the theory dead bodies might differ too much from living ones to produce useful results.

The most important figure in early anatomy is Galen, a Greek physician of the the second century AD, who studied human dissection in Alexandria. After leaving Egypt, he worked on the carcasses of bears, lions, oxen, goats, and pigs. Even better were monkeys like the barbary macaque, whose parts he found to have "an exact similarity" to those of humans. He also studied the gaping wounds of gladiators, though he acknowledged that this method was not practical for most students. After Galen, the study of anatomy stagnated for a millenium.


  1. Fascinating stuff. I can't believe this won't be a new book.....

  2. Thank you! I hope it will become a published book. One editor was squeamish; others may not be. The growing readership here on this blog may help.


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