Medical specimens and the erasure of racial violence: the case of Harriet Cole

Med Humanit. 2023 Sep;49(3):457-467. doi: 10.1136/medhum-2022-012514. Epub 2023 Mar 17.

Abstract

This article analyses the complex narrative of Harriet Cole, a 36-year-old African-American woman whose body was delivered to the anatomy department of Hahnemann Medical School in 1888. The anatomist Rufus B Weaver used her preserved remains to create a singular anatomical specimen, an intact extraction of the 'cerebro-spinal nervous system'. Initially anonymised, deracialised and unsexed, the central nervous system specimen endured for decades before her identity as a working-class woman of colour was reunited with her remains. In the 1930s, media accounts began to circulate that Harriet Cole had bequeathed her remains to the anatomist, a claim that continues to circulate uncritically in the biomedical literature today. Although we conclude that this is likely a confabulation that erased the history of violence to her autonomy and her dead body, the rhetorical possibility that Harriet Cole might have chosen to donate her body to the medical school reflects the racial, political and legal dimensions that influenced how and why the story of Harriet Cole's 'gift' served multiple purposes in the century and a half since her death.

Keywords: History; Medical humanities; cultural history.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anatomy* / history
  • Black or African American
  • Body Remains*
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Specimen Handling* / history