Harriet Cole: The Student Perspective
October 18, 2022
By Samiza Palmer and Willow Pastard, MD Program Class of 2025
The Start of a Journey
“Many religions take issue with dissection,” a fourth-year MD student said to the auditorium in our introductory session on the first day of anatomy lab. “In many ways, though, you are honoring these bodies through your education.”
“And it’s okay if you faint,” he added. “It’s totally normal; you can still be a surgeon.”
As these words of reassurance washed over us we chuckled collectively, the light humor achieving its intended effect of calming our nerves. The conference room of scrub-attired students awaited permission to enter the gross anatomy lab and begin the next phase of our medical education, an official departure from studying the theoretical mechanics of the body, to the physical realities of it.
But before we could begin, it was necessary to discuss exactly who we would be dissecting.
The presenters quickly got to the central message of the presentation. Donating one’s body to science is a meaningful and personal decision; one that we as students must understand and respect. We were given various examples: a couple who donated together, whose bodies remained side by side for the entirety of that year’s dissections; a former professor who donated his body so he could continue to teach students even in death. Their stories were meant to emphasize the humanity of the donors — our “first patients” — their noble contributions, and how as a collective we should take measures to respect their continued personhood.
Harriet: The Woman and the Specimen
On our way to the anatomy lab that first day we passed by the alabaster filaments of tissue comprising “Harriet,” the intact nervous system of Harriet Cole, a Black Philadelphia woman who, according to our tour guide, purportedly donated her body to one of Drexel’s predecessor institutions over 100 years ago. Her display hangs 5 feet from the fridge where students keep their lunches, just past the gym and the ping-pong tables of the student center on the Queen Lane medical campus. Harriet’s presence is a meaningful part of our school’s history, and yet her introduction to the student body was paltry at best.
Students initially meet “Harriet” the first week of medical school on the campus tour. Until recently, these tours erroneously repeated the story that Ms. Cole worked for Hahnemann Medical College, a College of Medicine Legacy Institution, and that she had willingly donated her body to science. A series of plaques displayed next to the body at the time of the tour described her as a triumph of Drexel’s innovative spirit. Reading further, you learn that Ms. Cole’s body was donated after she died of tuberculosis at a public hospital in 1888. The plaque’s narration assures the reader that the school adhered to the legal strictures of the time regarding body procurement. Dr. Weaver, the man who completed her dissection (the first successful dissection of its kind), went on to be celebrated internationally for his achievement in neuroanatomy. Reproductions of Ms. Cole’s dissected nervous system were widely disseminated for medical education.
When considering Ms. Cole’s story, it is essential to examine the historical context and gravity of body donation. Gross anatomy lab is regarded as an essential part of medical education, but the difficulty of ethically sourcing donors for dissection remains a persistent problem (Grow & Shiffman, 2017). Schools have employed various solutions throughout history, and the ethics and process of human body donation has improved over time. In the 19th century, however, it was not uncommon for bodies to be either sourced from deceased incarcerated people or stolen from graves, the latter practice quickly becoming a robust business (Pietila, 2018).
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states passed laws mandating that unclaimed bodies from state institutions would be given to medical schools. Despite the shift from a practice of stealing bodies to state-led apportionment, there was little change in the demographics of people whose bodies were being utilized. Marginalized in life, the poor, the incarcerated and racial minorities were also the most likely targets for dissection in death.
Historical records gathered by Drexel’s Legacy Center from their collections and the Philadelphia City Archives suggest that it was because of laws like Pennsylvania’s 1867 Armstrong Act (Guerrasio, 2007) on body donation that Ms. Cole’s body came into Hahnemann Medical School’s possession, not because she willed her body to the school. Her unclaimed status at Philadelphia’s city hospital and the lack of related kin on her documentation provided all the legal and ethical justification needed for her body to be diverted to the medical school and ultimately utilized for Dr. Weaver’s project.
Medical Dissections Now: A Rectification of the Past
When we discuss Harriet Cole’s dissection, we are confronting the idea of autonomy, a core element of medical bioethics. Unlike the people we celebrate on that first day of anatomy lab, we cannot confirm that Ms. Cole willingly donated her body. We must thus acknowledge that her autonomy was potentially violated (as likely happened to many others) by laws that institutionalized medical discrimination in Philadelphia. This stands in contrast to current donation practices and the ethic of patient choice emphasized to Drexel students today.
During our medical education, Drexel rightfully sheds light on egregious examples of medical discrimination and apartheid — HeLa cells, the Tuskegee Syphilis study, etc. — but it is equally important to shine that light inward. The “Harriet” exhibit exists within a canon of medical advancements that came at an ethical cost and presents an opportunity to educate students about the relationship between the marginalization of communities and medical advancement. It is imperative to discuss that relationship, because these histories exist on a continuum that informs the realities of medicine today. Far from being a thing of the past, oppressive systems persist in medicine because of failures in medical education to properly reconcile with the mistakes of the past. By acknowledging stories like Ms. Cole’s, we can hope to create a generation of doctors prepared to redress the errors of the past and create a more equitable future.
A note from Leon McCrea II, MD, MPH, senior associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion:
Samiza Palmer and Willow Pastard, both in the MD program class of 2025, were instrumental in the decision to correct the historical context and improve the experience of those who view the Harriet exhibit. The Legacy Center and Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion wish to acknowledge their invaluable contribution to making Drexel University College of Medicine a more welcoming, inclusive and equitable place for all to learn.
Pietila, Antero. (2018, October 25). In Need of Cadavers, 19th-Century Medical Students Raided Baltimore’s Graves. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/in-need-cadavers-19th-century-medical-students-raided-baltimores-graves-180970629/
Guerrasio, Venetia M., "Dissecting the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act: Laws, bodies, and science, 1880--1960" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations. 376. https://scholars.unh.edu/dissertation/376
Grow, B., & Shiffman, J. (2017, October 24). In the U.S. market for human bodies, anyone can sell the donated dead. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-brokers/
Drexel University's Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections. (2022, August). Historical Human Remains, https://drexel.edu/legacy-center/the-collections/historical-human-remains/
Article - Hester, J. L. (2021, March 18). Harriet Cole’s Mysterious Identity Still Stumps Historians. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/harriet-cole-human-nervous-system-philadelphia
Book – Washington, H. A. (2008, January 8). Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (Illustrated). Anchor.
Podcast – “1619 Episode 4: How the Bad Blood Started.” (2019, September 13). New York Times. Retrieved 15 September, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/13/podcasts/1619-slavery-healthcare.html
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