The Gory New York City Riot that Shaped American Medicine

Medical doctors didn’t always get the respect they do today, because today they undergo many years of expensive and difficult training and then go on to save lives and/or make us feel better. Neither was the case a couple of hundred years ago. Oh sure, there were some very educated physicians, but many doctors in training were seen as not much more than grave robbers.  

In the closing years of the 18th century, New York was home to only one medical school: Columbia College. At the time, those looking to practice medicine didn’t have to graduate from a professional school, and this led to some students attending private, not-for-credit classes at New York Hospital, taught by Richard Bayley, a Connecticut-born doctor who had studied in London with the famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter. Anatomical dissections were a central component of these classes, and medical training in general, but they were offensive, even seen as sacrilegious, to early New Yorkers. In the winter of 1788, the city was abuzz with newspaper stories about medical students robbing graves to get bodies for dissection, mostly from the potter’s field and the cemetery reserved for the city’s blacks, known as the Negroes Burial Ground. While some of those reports may have been based on rumor, they pointed to an underlying truth: with no regulated source of bodies for dissection, the medical students had taken matters into their hands and begun plundering the local graveyards.

The riot that ensued led to the deaths of up to 20 people. And it wasn’t the only one, as people in other cities were fed up with medical training that involved stolen corpses. Read about the riot, and the reforms that followed, at Smithsonian.

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