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.

Early History

On August 1, 1818, twenty-one members of a state-appointed commission, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, assembled at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to determine, among other things, the curriculum of the future University of Virginia. They decided on eight initial faculty positions, including a professor of medicine and anatomy. This was unsurprising given Jefferson’s longstanding interest in medical science. As early as 1779, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson rearranged the curriculum of the College of William and Mary to include a short-lived medical school, the first of its kind in Virginia.

Robley Dunglison

From the beginning, Jefferson prioritized the practical aspects of medical education, which was in its infancy in the United States. In the 1818 Report to the Commissioners of the University of Virginia, he stressed the importance of a hospital “where the student can have the benefits of attending clinical lectures, and of assisting at operations of surgery.” In February 1825, Robley Dunglison joined the faculty of the University of Virginia and became the first full-time medical professor in the United States. He and his wife lodged in Pavilion X—part of Jefferson’s original designs for what he called the Academical Village, which included the Rotunda and two rows of five pavilions, each of which was used for professors to live and lecture in.

Early on, Dunglison concluded that it would be impossible to teach students anatomy in his pavilion. In particular, he was aghast at the idea of dissecting human cadavers in such close proximity to his living quarters and proposed a new anatomical hall. As Jefferson was already inclined toward medical practice over theory, he took Dunglison’s concerns seriously and drew up a preliminary building design, which was presented to and accepted by the board of visitors on March 4, 1825. The Anatomical Theatre became the first architectural appendage to Jefferson’s Academical Village.

Design and Construction

In poor health during the last year of his life, Jefferson nevertheless devoted himself to the construction of the Anatomical Theatre. He chose a ravine west of Pavilion I and a service hotel along West Street for the location. He designed the building to be perfectly square, with forty-four-foot sides, two stories, and a basement. The top floor, which included skylights for better lighting, housed an octagonal surgical theater to be used for lectures; the middle floor was to be a museum displaying medical specimens; and the basement was to be used as a charnel to store and prepare cadavers for dissection. In addition, Jefferson included half-moon windows surrounding the building to discourage outside viewers.

Jefferson’s design likely was inspired by European anatomical theaters of the Renaissance, when anatomy was first introduced to university curricula. The sixteenth-century Italian surgeon and anatomist Vidus Vidius wrote a treatise with instructions on how to create such a theater and included two aspects present in Jefferson’s design—the amphitheater’s octagonal shape and the strong lighting on the upper floor. Jefferson was further influenced by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who had designed the University of Pennsylvania’s anatomical theater, the first of its kind in the United States. Latrobe and Jefferson frequently corresponded, and Jefferson had already solicited his advice on the design of the pavilions and Rotunda. Thus, when Jefferson presented his design to the board of visitors, he had incorporated Latrobe’s design for the University of Pennsylvania theater as well as input from Dunglison.

Construction on the Anatomical Theatre had begun by May 1825, but Jefferson quickly grew frustrated with its slow progress. Writing on February 4, 1826, to Joseph C. Cabell, a member of the board of visitors and the Senate of Virginia, he complained that “till the latter is in a condition for use there can never be a dissection of a single subject.” Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, and in October, the new rector, James Madison, informed the General Assembly that “the work in the Anatomical hall is so far advanced”—it was about three-quarters finished—”that it may be used early in the next session [early 1827].”

Early Years

Anatomical Laboratory

The Anatomical Theatre opened in 1827, at the start of the university’s third session of classes. However, construction in and around the building continued through the 1830s, and it is evident from the board of visitors’ minutes that there were multiple deviations from Thomas Jefferson’s original design. For instance, rather than the basement being used merely as a charnel, something larger and more functional was built. In 1837, the roof of the Anatomical Theatre was raised and covered with slates, likely to prevent leakage, and a cupola, which was not included in Jefferson’s sketch, was added. Most notably, in 1831, the kitchen garden beside the theater was removed to make room for an additional building to boil cadavers after dissection. This was due largely to complaints from students on the nearby West Range who could smell the charnel’s unpleasant odors. In 1837, a new, one-story brick structure was built in the building’s rear designed exclusively for dissections and called the Anatomical Laboratory, Dissection Hall, or, by students, Stiff Hall. It was in use until 1929.

Anatomical Theatre Bricks

Little is known about the enslaved labor utilized in the Anatomical Theatre, but university records mention one man referred to only as Lewis, whose owner was paid $100 a year for him to serve as the building’s custodian from 1839 to 1857. Known as Anatomical Lewis by students, he lived in various locations at the university, including in a room in a wood yard behind Pavilion VII. Because of the unsavory nature of his duties, Lewis was treated as something of a monster by children and lived as an outcast even among his fellow slaves. It is unclear when or under what circumstances he left the university but it was probably by 1860.

During its initial decades, the Anatomical Theatre was used not only for surgical lessons and practice, but also for the professor of medicine to hold office hours. His duties included advising students, administering vaccinations, aiding in surgeries, and procuring cadavers. In the 1820s, the students enrolled in medical classes numbered in the teens or twenties but within a few decades that had reached as high as sixty-one. Both space and cadavers became scarce.

Body Snatching

Early in the nineteenth century, dissecting cadavers was frowned upon as disgraceful and immoral, and the General Assembly’s refusal to sanction it. As a result, medical instructors and their students increasingly turned to grave robbing. They stole mostly from African American and pauper cemeteries, although they sometimes requested the bodies of convicts. These populations were socially and economically disadvantaged, and did not have sufficient legal protection for their dead.

John Staige Davis

Several early attempts at grave robbing are well documented because they went awry, such an 1834 incident in which the student A. F. E. Robertson was, according to a witness, “shot in the back by an old fellow while endeavoring to take a dead negro for our anatomical dissections.” However, most of what is known about obtaining cadavers at the University of Virginia after the 1830s comes from the records of John Staige Davis, who was the demonstrator of anatomy and subsequently the anatomy professor from 1847 to 1885. Davis favored a practical approach to anatomy, which included individual dissections, over the more traditional didactic approach. This was a successful but costly approach and by 1860 required more than twenty-five cadavers a year. Many of these came from the local enslaved population, including men and women who had labored at the university. Others came from urban centers, particularly Richmond and Petersburg, which had large black populations.

Over time, Davis developed a stealthy supply chain that included physicians who could act as intermediaries with known body snatchers, or resurrectionists. These body snatchers took cadavers from graveyards, placed them in large whiskey and oil barrels packed with bran or sawdust, and transported them by train from the Richmond–Petersburg area to Charlottesville. For a while, Davis competed for cadavers with the medical department of Hampden-Sydney College, located in Richmond. In 1851, the two schools signed an agreement by which Hampden-Sydney would gather the cadavers, transport the University of Virginia’s half share to the Virginia Central Railroad‘s Central Depot, and manage the finances involved. The only stipulation for the University of Virginia was that it not compete for cadavers in the Richmond market.

The outbreak of the American Civil War (1861–1865) disrupted medical education in the South, and Davis took leave to serve as a surgeon at a division of a Confederate General Hospital in Charlottesville. Once the war ended, however, he once again turned to grave robbing. The number of African Americans subject to state execution in the decades after the abolition of slavery provided an opportunity for additional corpses. On January 9, 1883, Davis wrote to a doctor in Martinsville, “we were never so much in need of subjects as now. Is any body to be hung in Henry [County], whose corpse I might procure?” The year, the General Assembly for the first time made cadavers legally available for medical study.

Later Years

Reconstructed Anatomical Theatre

In the months after the Civil War, Davis was forced to borrow from a local druggist the necessary supplies of medical specimens for his materia medica class. He wrote a letter in 1867 to J. E. Johnson, the university proctor and superintendent of grounds and buildings, about the physical condition of the building, which had also been neglected during the war. He asked for repairs for the anatomical room skylight and the roof, which had developed leaks. In 1872 the university’s catalogue reported the conditions of the physical building and its equipment as excellent.

On November 20, 1886, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the building’s roof, certain interior spaces, and a collection of anatomical paintings made by the artist Henry Scharf before the Civil War. William B. Towles, who had succeeded Davis as served as professor of anatomy from 1885 to 1939, oversaw the repairs, and the Anatomical Theatre reopened on October 25, 1887. During the reconstruction, a permanent lecture room was added, likely in the north wing of the Anatomical Laboratory.

Sixth Club Cadaver Society (1893)
Sixth Club Cadaver Society (1893)
3rd Club Cadaver Society
3rd Club Cadaver Society
Sixth Club Cadaver Society (1899—1900)
Sixth Club Cadaver Society (1899—1900)

African Americans continued to work as custodians in the Anatomical Theatre. As with Anatomical Lewis, these men likely were ostracized from the larger black community due to the nature of their work. Little is known about them, although they sometimes appeared in macabre group photographs of white medical students posing with their cadavers. According to the 1896–1897 university catalogue, cadaver societies, or “dissecting clubs,” contained about eight men each, with no more than five clubs admitted to the Anatomical Laboratory at once.

In 1902, the board of visitors commissioned a “cold storage plant” for use by the Anatomical Department, which was probably for the storage of cadavers, although it is unknown whether this new building was directly attached to the Anatomical Theatre. The last known addition to the theater was a columned portico designed by Professor Fiske Kimball and added to the front of the building in 1920. The Anatomical Theatre slowly lost its utility through the first decades of the twentieth century after the opening of the Dispensary in 1892 and the University of Virginia Hospital, which contained its own surgical theater, in 1901. In 1924, the building was declared unsafe for students, but after reconditioning housed the short-lived School of Rural Economics.

Anatomical Theatre Demolition

By the 1930s, the Anatomical Theatre was used only as a storage room. In 1924, the university’s president, Edwin Anderson Alderman, proposed a new library and ground was broken in 1936 in an area adjacent to the Anatomical Theatre. Six weeks before the library’s dedication on June 13, 1938, President John Lloyd Newcomb asked the board of visitors its opinion on removing the Anatomical Theatre, which some people believed tarnished the view of Alderman Library. The board passed the motion “that the old Medical Building on West Range be removed at the convenience of the President.” Subsequently, in the summer of 1939, the Anatomical Theatre was demolished and the remaining area filled and leveled. It was the only University of Virginia building designed by Thomas Jefferson to ever suffer this fate.

February 1825
Robley Dunglison joins the faculty of the University of Virginia as a professor of anatomy and medicine. He soon asks Thomas Jefferson to design him a separate classroom space for dissections, or what will come to be known as the Anatomical Theatre.
March 4, 1825
The University of Virginia board of visitors accepts Thomas Jefferson's design for the Anatomical Theatre.
May 1825
By this date, construction on the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia has begun.
The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia opens for classes, although construction continues for at least the next decade.
The University of Virginia student A. F. E. Robertson is, according to a witness, "shot in the back by an old fellow while endeavoring to take a dead negro for our anatomical dissections."
The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is renovated. The roof is raised and a cupola added.
The University of Virginia builds the Anatomical Laboratory, a one-story building behind the Anatomical Theatre. It is also known as Dissection Hall or Stiff Hall.
An enslaved man known as Anatomical Lewis serves as custodian to the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
John Staige Davis serves as the demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
The University of Virginia and Hampden-Sydney College sign an agreement on how they will cooperate to obtain cadavers for dissection.
William B. Towles serves as professor of anatomy at the University of Virginia.
November 20, 1886
A fire destroys the roof and certain interior spaces of the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
October 25, 1887
After undergoing fire-related repairs, the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia reopens.
The University of Virginia board of visitors commissions a "cold storage plant" for use by the school's Anatomical Department.
A columned portico, designed by Fiske Kimball, is added to the front of the Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia.
The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is declared unsafe for students.
The University of Virginia discontinues use of the Anatomical Laboratory, a one-story building behind the Anatomical Theatre.
June 13, 1938
Alderman Library is dedicated to the University of Virginia's first president during Final Exercises.
Summer 1939
The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia is demolished and the remaining area filled and leveled.
  • Gates, Ernie. “Theatre of the Macabre.” University of Virginia Magazine 106, no. 1 (spring 2017): 42–47.
  • Halperin, Edward C. “The Poor, the Black, and the Marginalized as the Source of Cadavers in United States Anatomical Education.” Clinical Anatomy 20, no. 5 (July 2007): 489–495.
APA Citation:
Matson, Emily. Anatomical Theatre. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/anatomical-theatre.
MLA Citation:
Matson, Emily. "Anatomical Theatre" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, January 13
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