On August 1, 1818, twenty-one members of a state-appointed commission, including Thomas Jefferson and, 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 , 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.
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
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.
, a member of the board of visitors and the Senate of Virginia, he 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].”
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.
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.
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.
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(1861–1865) in the South, and Davis took leave to serve as a surgeon at a division of a Confederate General Hospital in . 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 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.
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.
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.
By the 1930s, the Anatomical Theatre was used only as a storage room. In 1924, the university’s president,, 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.