Author: Emily Matson

a graduate student in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia

John Staige Davis (1824–1885)

John Staige Davis was a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia from 1847 until 1885. Born in Albemarle County, he was the son of John A. G. Davis, a law professor at the university who was shot and killed by a student there in 1840. The younger Davis practiced medicine in western Virginia before joining the faculty himself in 1847. Preferring a practical approach to anatomy instruction, and thwarted by a Virginia law that prohibited the disinterment of dead bodies, he resorted to grave robbing. Most of the bodies came from African American and pauper cemeteries, others from executed convicts. In 1859, Davis requested the bodies of men sentenced to be hanged after John Brown‘s raid on Harpers Ferry but received none. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Davis served as a Confederate surgeon in Charlottesville. He died in 1885.


Anatomical Theatre

The Anatomical Theatre was designed by Thomas Jefferson and erected on the grounds of the University of Virginia in 1825–1826. It was used for anatomy instruction and the storage of cadavers. Jefferson had long prioritized medical education in his plans for the university, but when Robley Dunglison, the first professor of anatomy, arrived in 1825, he found that his pavilion’s teaching space was inconvenient for the dissection of cadavers. Inspired by Renaissance architecture and the work of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jefferson designed a square, three-story building that housed a skylit, octagonal surgical theater on the top floor. The Anatomical Theatre opened for classes in 1827 and was the subject of periodic construction and renovations in subsequent decades. In 1837, a one-story brick Anatomical Laboratory was built behind it and used only for dissections. Enslaved labor helped construct and later clean the theater, with university records referencing a man known as Anatomical Lewis, who served as custodian from 1839 to 1857. In order to acquire cadavers for dissection, professors such as John Staige Davis, who taught from 1847 until his death in 1885, relied on grave robbers who stole mostly African American corpses. The building fell into disuse after the opening of the University of Virginia Hospital in 1901 and briefly served as home to the School of Rural Economics. It was razed in 1939 to improve views of the new Alderman Library. It is the only Jefferson-designed building at the university to have been torn down.