III Evidence from Medical Institutions
Teachings of the Dead: The Archaeology of Anatomized Remains from Holden Chapel, Harvard University
Christina J. Hodge, Jane Lyden Rousseau, and Michele E. Morgan
Introduction: Teachings of the Dead
As its name suggests, Holden Chapel at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts was intended to be a place of worship when built in 1744 (Fig. 6.1). Instead, by 1801 the university retrofitted the structure for anatomical and chemical instruction and to house the Harvard Medical School (HMS), founded 19 years earlier in 1782. In 1820, William Henry Furness attended a few anatomy lectures at Holden while a Divinity student at Harvard, mirroring the building’s spiritual and profane associations in his own interests. Furness was a future abolitionist and minister of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. A moralistic bent is apparent within the pages of his 1820 lecture notebook, where he wrote on April 5: “Although the dead cannot tell us anything of a future life, they can be made to teach us a great deal concerning the present” (Furness 1820). His words connect present and past preoccupations with the social roles of human remains. Archaeological evidence of early nineteenth-century anatomization recovered from a trash feature beneath Holden Chapel materializes Furness’s aphorism, providing insight into the creation of medical authority, shifting ethical norms, and concepts of identity, personhood, and the body during a transformative period in medical education.  
Fig. 6.1 Holden Chapel (2007). Photograph by Daderot, available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license
For those investigating historic anatomization and its legacies, the “teachings of the dead” include:
- • The medical knowledge imparted by deceased human bodies as they participated in anatomical lectures as cadavers, prepared specimens, segments, prosections, and other body portions.
- • The instructional content of nineteenth-century anatomical lectures, which were taught by (now) long dead faculty and absorbed by (now) long dead students.
- • The social history of medicine, an endeavor facilitated by persistent traces of past people and instructional moments.
The archaeology of Holden Chapel is centrally concerned with—as Furness put it—the ways in which the dead were “made” to teach the living.
The word “made” also carries multiple relevant meanings. By using deceased bodies as instructional props, instructors made the dead teach the living about the intimate workings of human biology. Faculty and students also fabricated (“made”) specimens from pieces of deceased and living bodies, obtained via dissection or surgery. “Made” also carries a sense of predestination. The Boston Independent Chronicle suggested in 1783 that it was “entertaining to every ingenious and philosophical mind” and “to be taught the structure of the human body; to be led into the knowledge of the various parts by actual dissection ... [was] peculiarly instructive and advantageous to the young student in physic” (1783).
Perhaps Furness and his contemporaries reasoned that dead bodies existed—were “made”—to fulfill this potential.
Whatever meanings Furness intended, his sentiment still holds true. The dead of whom he wrote continue to teach us a great deal about the past. They also teach about our present, which has been so strongly shaped by medical and social values of the nineteenth century.