On August 1, 1818, twenty-one members of a state-appointed commission, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, assembled at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to determine, among other things, the curriculum of the future University of Virginia. They decided on eight initial faculty positions, including a professor of medicine and anatomy. This was unsurprising given Jefferson's longstanding interest in medical science. As early as 1779, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson rearranged the curriculum of the College of William and Mary to include a short-lived medical school, the first of its kind in Virginia.
Early on, Dunglison concluded that it would be impossible to teach students anatomy in his pavilion. In particular, he was aghast at the idea of dissecting human cadavers in such close proximity to his living quarters and proposed a new anatomical hall. As Jefferson was already inclined toward medical practice over theory, he took Dunglison's concerns seriously and drew up a preliminary building design, which was presented to and accepted by the board of visitors on March 4, 1825. The Anatomical Theatre became the first architectural appendage to Jefferson's Academical Village.
Design and Construction
In poor health during the last year of his life, Jefferson nevertheless devoted himself to the construction of the Anatomical Theatre. He chose a ravine west of Pavilion I and a service hotel along West Street for the location. He designed the building to be perfectly square, with forty-four-foot sides, two stories, and a basement. The top floor, which included skylights for better lighting, housed an octagonal surgical theater to be used for lectures; the middle floor was to be a museum displaying medical specimens; and the basement was to be used as a charnel to store and prepare cadavers for dissection. In addition, Jefferson included half-moon windows surrounding the building to discourage outside viewers.
Jefferson's design likely was inspired by European anatomical theaters of the Renaissance, when anatomy was first introduced to university curricula. The sixteenth-century Italian surgeon and anatomist Vidus Vidius wrote a treatise with instructions on how to create such a theater and included two aspects present in Jefferson's design—the amphitheater's octagonal shape and the strong lighting on the upper floor. Jefferson was further influenced by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had designed the University of Pennsylvania's anatomical theater, the first of its kind in the United States. Latrobe and Jefferson frequently corresponded, and Jefferson had already solicited his advice on the design of the pavilions and Rotunda. Thus, when Jefferson presented his design to the board of visitors, he had incorporated Latrobe's design for the University of Pennsylvania theater as well as input from Dunglison.
During its initial decades, the Anatomical Theatre was used not only for surgical lessons and practice, but also for the professor of medicine to hold office hours. His duties included advising students, administering vaccinations, aiding in surgeries, and procuring cadavers. In the 1820s, the students enrolled in medical classes numbered in the teens or twenties but within a few decades that had reached as high as sixty-one. Both space and cadavers became scarce.
Early in the nineteenth century, dissecting cadavers was frowned upon as disgraceful and immoral, and the General Assembly's refusal to sanction it. As a result, medical instructors and their students increasingly turned to grave robbing. They stole mostly from African American and pauper cemeteries, although they sometimes requested the bodies of convicts. These populations were socially and economically disadvantaged, and did not have sufficient legal protection for their dead.
Over time, Davis developed a stealthy supply chain that included physicians who could act as intermediaries with known body snatchers, or resurrectionists. These body snatchers took cadavers from graveyards, placed them in large whiskey and oil barrels packed with bran or sawdust, and transported them by train from the Richmond-Petersburg area to Charlottesville. For a while, Davis competed for cadavers with the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, located in Richmond. In 1851, the two schools signed an agreement by which Hampden-Sydney would gather the cadavers, transport the University of Virginia's half share to the Virginia Central Railroad's Central Depot, and manage the finances involved. The only stipulation for the University of Virginia was that it not compete for cadavers in the Richmond market.
The outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–1865) disrupted medical education in the South, and Davis took leave to serve as a surgeon at a division of a Confederate General Hospital in Charlottesville. Once the war ended, however, he once again turned to grave robbing. The number of African Americans subject to state execution in the decades after the abolition of slavery provided an opportunity for additional corpses. On January 9, 1883, Davis wrote to a doctor in Martinsville, "we were never so much in need of subjects as now. Is any body to be hung in Henry [County], whose corpse I might procure?" The year, the General Assembly for the first time made cadavers legally available for medical study.
On November 20, 1886, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the building's roof, certain interior spaces, and a collection of anatomical paintings made by the artist Henry Scharf before the Civil War. William B. Towles, who had succeeded Davis as served as professor of anatomy from 1885 to 1939, oversaw the repairs, and the Anatomical Theatre reopened on October 25, 1887. During the reconstruction, a permanent lecture room was added, likely in the north wing of the Anatomical Laboratory.
In 1902, the board of visitors commissioned a "cold storage plant" for use by the Anatomical Department, which was probably for the storage of cadavers, although it is unknown whether this new building was directly attached to the Anatomical Theatre. The last known addition to the theater was a columned portico designed by Professor Fiske Kimball and added to the front of the building in 1920. The Anatomical Theatre slowly lost its utility through the first decades of the twentieth century after the opening of the Dispensary in 1892 and the University of Virginia Hospital, which contained its own surgical theater, in 1901. In 1924, the building was declared unsafe for students, but after reconditioning housed the short-lived School of Rural Economics.
February 1825 - Robley Dunglison joins the faculty of the University of Virginia as a professor of anatomy and medicine. He soon asks Thomas Jefferson to design him a separate classroom space for dissections, or what will come to be known as the Anatomical Theatre.
March 4, 1825 - The University of Virginia board of visitors accepts Thomas Jefferson's design for the Anatomical Theatre.
May 1825 - By this date, construction on the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia has begun.
1827 - The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia opens for classes, although construction continues for at least the next decade.
1834 - The University of Virginia student A. F. E. Robertson is, according to a witness, "shot in the back by an old fellow while endeavoring to take a dead negro for our anatomical dissections."
1837 - The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is renovated. The roof is raised and a cupola added.
1837 - The University of Virginia builds the Anatomical Laboratory, a one-story building behind the Anatomical Theatre. It is also known as Dissection Hall or Stiff Hall.
1839–1857 - An enslaved man known as Anatomical Lewis serves as custodian to the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
1847–1885 - John Staige Davis serves as the demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
1851 - The University of Virginia and Hampden-Sydney College sign an agreement on how they will cooperate to obtain cadavers for dissection.
1885–1939 - William B. Towles serves as professor of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
November 20, 1886 - A fire destroys the roof and certain interior spaces of the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
October 25, 1887 - After undergoing fire-related repairs, the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia reopens.
1902 - The University of Virginia board of visitors commissions a "cold storage plant" for use by the school's Anatomical Department.
1920 - A columned portico, designed by Fiske Kimball, is added to the front of the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
1924 - The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is declared unsafe for students.
1929 - The University of Virginia discontinues use of the Anatomical Laboratory, a one-story building behind the Anatomical Theatre.
June 13, 1938 - Alderman Library is dedicated to the University of Virginia's first president during Final Exercises.
Summer 1939 - The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is demolished and the remaining area filled and leveled.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Matson, E. Anatomical Theatre. (2018, July 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Anatomical_Theatre.
- MLA Citation:
Matson, Emily. "Anatomical Theatre." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Jul. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: October 30, 2017 | Last modified: July 19, 2018
Contributed by Emily Matson, a graduate student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia.