The Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1883: Weighing the Roles of Professor William Smith Forbes and Senator William James McKnight

J Hist Med Allied Sci. 2016 Oct;71(4):422-446. doi: 10.1093/jhmas/jrw011. Epub 2016 Jul 31.


Effective Anatomical Acts transformed medical education and curtailed grave-robbing. William S. Forbes, Demonstrator of Anatomy at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, authored the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act of 1867, but it was ineffective. In December of 1882, Forbes and accomplices were charged with grave-robbing. Forbes was acquitted in early 1883, but his accomplices were all convicted; nevertheless, these events precipitated a strengthened Anatomy Act in 1883. Forbes was crowned the Father of the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act and was revered by the Philadelphia medical community for his personal sacrifices for medical education; they even paid his legal fees. Over the remainder of his life, Forbes received many honors. However, there was a second major player, rural doctor William J. McKnight, a convicted grave-robber and State Senator. The evidence shows that Forbes precipitated the crisis, which was a racial powder keg, and then primarily focused on his trial, while McKnight, creatively working behind the scenes in collaboration with Jefferson, Anatomy Professor William H. Pancoast, used the crisis to draft and pass transformative legislation enabling anatomical dissection at Pennsylvania medical schools. While not minimizing Forbes suffering throughout these events, McKnight should be appropriately recognized for his initiative and contributions, which far exceeded those of Forbes.

Keywords: Jefferson Medical College; Philadelphia; Thomas Eakins; William H. Pancoast; William J. McKnight; William S. Forbes; anatomical history; grave-robbing; race riot.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Cadaver
  • Education, Medical / history*
  • Education, Medical / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Grave Robbing / history*
  • Grave Robbing / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • History, 19th Century
  • Humans
  • Pennsylvania

Personal name as subject

  • William Smith Forbes
  • William James McKnight