La fabrique du corps médical. Dissections humaines et formation médicale dans le Québec du XIXe siècle

Type of resource
La fabrique du corps médical. Dissections humaines et formation médicale dans le Québec du XIXe siècle
Parietal lobe, pleura, sphenoid, cervical vertebrae ... The author asks: “Why do we conceive our bodies as assemblages of parts, the nomenclature of which comes from a medical and surgical language?” His thesis retraces to the nineteenth century the social conditions which rendered possible the advent of this anatomical body in schools of medicine within Quebec, including McGill and Bishop’s universities. The author points out that at that time, studying the anatomical body became an issue of legitimacy and professional distinction for doctors. It involved the dissection of thousands of human cadavers, either obtained through grave-robbery or unclaimed by relatives in institutions of care and assistance. He notes that the Canadian Anatomy Acts of 1843 and 1883 imposed the category of the "unclaimed" dead after almost a century of polemics and negotiations between a variety of actors. Using archival material from hospitals and medical schools, newspapers, judicial and parliamentary debates, as well as written testimonies from physicians, the author’s analysis of the Quebec case contributes to the history of the medical profession and to that of the disposal of the dead in the nineteenth century. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Quebec had become part of the British Empire. Consequently, physicians and surgeons trained in human dissection in London or Edinburgh settled on the territory. He explains that the application of the Murder Act, a British law authorizing the dissection of individuals sentenced to hanging for murder, allowed the first human dissections to take place in Quebec. Instituted from the 1820s in medical curricula, this practice became compulsory for all Canadian medical apprentices by the second half of the century. In 1843, a first Canadian Anatomy Act, modeled after the one adopted in London a decade earlier, put an end to the punitive dissection of convicted murderers, and restricted human dissection to unclaimed dead from institutions of care or assistance - in principle. The author points out that the reluctance of some of these institutions to comply with this act led to its failure. Over the forty years that followed medical schools thus negotiated the procurement of corpses required for their courses in human anatomy outside of the law's boundaries. Meanwhile, the removal of cadavers from burial sites became a frequent occurrence among Quebec medical students. In the 1870s this status quo reached a breaking point. He explains that the controversy surrounding body snatching was in contradiction with the desire of doctors to be recognized as the only professionals entitled to intervene with regards to health. In this context, the trial in Montreal of a Bishop’s University medical student accused of stealing a dead person in Acton Vale fostered the adoption in 1883 of a reform of the Canadian Anatomy Act. By means of a quantitative analysis of five institutional records, the author shows that human dissections normalized in Quebec by the end of the nineteenth century, as a large majority of unclaimed dead entrusted to medical schools came from insane asylums. The author concludes that the intercession of go-betweens such as anatomy inspectors allowed two social groups to form in the mirror of the anatomical body in nineteenth-century Quebec -- on the one hand, that of physicians who studied that body and, on the other, that of the "unclaimed dead" who embodied it.
PhD dissertation
Université du Québec à Montréal
# of Pages
Robert, Martin. “La fabrique du corps médical. Dissections humaines et formation médicale dans le Québec du XIXe siècle.” PhD dissertation, Université du Québec à Montréal, 2019.
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