John Staige Davis was born in Albemarle County on October 1, 1824, to John A. G. Davis and Mary Jane Terrell Davis. His mother was a grandniece of, his father a publisher and lawyer. Davis was the second of seven children and likely spent his early years on the Farm, a 68.75-acre estate that his father purchased on December 31, 1825. John A. G. Davis commissioned William B. Phillips and Malcolm F. Crawford to build a house for his family on the land. Phillips had worked as a mason during construction of the at the University of Virginia, helping to build four of the ten pavilions and the Rotunda.
John A. G. Davis began teaching at the university in 1830, and all four of his sons attended the school, with John Staige Davis matriculating in the autumn of 1837. On November 12, 1840, on the anniversary of anand during the younger Davis’s fourth year of study, a student shot Professor Davis in front of his residence at Pavilion X; he died of his wounds two days later. John Staige Davis received an MA, and then, on July 4, 1841, an MD degree. He was sixteen years old.
After studying practical medicine in Philadelphia for eighteen months, Davis practiced in Jefferson County (in what later became). In January 1847, he was named the demonstrator of anatomy at the University of Virginia. Later that same year, on June 10, 1847, he married Lucy Landon Blackford, with whom he had a son and two daughters, one of whom did not survive to adulthood. The 1850 federal census indicates that that his household included a twenty-year-old mixed-race woman named Ann Tyree, and two enslaved people. Davis was elected to the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church in 1852.
On June 9, 1848, Davis became the youngest of twelve signers of the “Agreed Rate of Medical Charges” fee bill, which specified the minimum fees required for a vast array of medical services. As most medical practitioners practiced solo at the time, such fee bills were an important way for physicians to combat both “irregular practitioners,” who had not undergone standard medical training, and regularly trained physicians who charged low fees.
Davis’s titles and responsibilities at the University of Virginia shifted over the years. By 1850, he had become the university’s anatomy lecturer. In 1853, he became the lecturer on anatomy and materia medica, and in 1856 the professor of anatomy, materia medica, and botany, retaining the first two titles until his death in 1885. He was regarded highly by both colleagues and students, one of whom noted in 1849 that he was an “affable, familiar, and at the same time, dignified character.”
Davis favored a practical approach to teaching. This was looked upon favorably by many colleagues, one of whom noted that “he was not only fully abreast of the latest advances in medical science, but was also skillful and judicious in their practical application.” There were obstacles to this approach, however. Davis wanted his students to learn anatomy through hands-on dissection, but by the late 1840s the General Assembly had made the disinterment of a dead body a felony. Like many other medical professors of the day, Davis turned to grave robbing to meet the needs of his students, who numbered more than twenty-five per year by 1860.
Most of what is known today about grave robbing at the University of Virginia comes from the records that Davis left behind. Most of the cadavers stolen by university personnel came from African American and pauper cemeteries, which enjoyed fewer legal protections for their dead. Local slaveholders also on occasion provided the cadavers of enslaved people, especially if the slaveholders or slaves had been. Cadavers were easily obtained from densely populated urban areas, and Davis developed supply chains from Alexandria, Norfolk, and, particularly, Richmond and Petersburg, both of which had large black populations.
Davis also sought out the bodies of convicts for dissection. On December 8, 1859, he wrote a letter to authorities in Charles Town requesting the bodies of men to be hanged after John Brown’s raid on. His request apparently was denied, although a number of bodies were given to Winchester Medical College, in Winchester. Although the Civil War at the University of Virginia, there is sufficient evidence to presume that Davis resumed grave robbing in the postwar years. The main source of cadavers continued to be pauper cemeteries, but the use of executed criminals—in the years after the abolition of slavery, these were increasingly African American men—also was popular. On January 9, 1883, Davis wrote to Dr. S. G. Pedigo, of Martinsville, that “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?” In 1884, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Anatomical Act, which legalized the use of cadavers for medical study.
Davis was commissioned as a surgeon in the Confederate army’s medical corps on July 3, 1861, serving at the Charlottesville General Hospital and housing wounded soldiers in his residence in Pavilion X. After the war, Davis resumed teaching but was forced to borrow supplies from a local druggist for his materia medica class. He also requested repairs to the, for both the anatomical room skylight and roof, which had developed a leak.
Lucy Blackford Davis, died on February 1, 1859. On September 2, 1865, Davis married Caroline Keane Hill. They two sons and one daughter together. Their eldest, John Staige Davis, also taught medicine at the University of Virginia. Davis continued teaching until he fell ill of pneumonia. He died at his home on July 17, 1885, and was buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery.