Anatomical Theatre Web Exhibit

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A new web exhibit from Historical Collections is now available!

The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia

Detail of the Anatomical Theatre from View of the University … by E. Sachse & Co., 1856. Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Detail from View of the University… E. Sachse & Co., 1856. Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Some of you might remember the physical display about UVA’s Anatomical Theatre which was in the library lobby last year. Now, an expanded version has joined 34 other online exhibits hosted on the Historical Collections exhibits webpage.

While an anatomical theatre was not included in the earliest plans of the University, the need for one became clear before the first classes were held in 1825. Thomas Jefferson himself drew the design which included two floor plans, a front elevation view, and a cross section. The web exhibit documents the initial construction and traces later changes to the building into the first third of the twentieth century.

Photograph of the Anatomical Theatre by Atcheson Laughlin Hench, 1937. Prints07408, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

The exhibit also explores events surrounding the uses of the building. Through the letters of an early faculty member, John Staige Davis, the reader gets a glimpse of what anatomy professors in the nineteenth century did to procure “subjects” or cadavers so their medical students could perform dissections. Davis described arrangements with “resurrectionists” or body snatchers who frequented the cemeteries of the poor and the enslaved. Letters were also written to request the bodies of those sentenced to death, as when Davis asked for those “Convicts awaiting execution,” referring to men who were to be hung for their participation in John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry.

Wish you could visit this Jeffersonian building? Sadly, that is no longer possible as it was demolished in 1939 following the construction of Alderman Library. However, a generous number of images in the exhibit illustrate the Theatre’s location, appearance, and demise.

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library houses many of the photographs, the John Staige Davis papers, and numerous official University of Virginia documents which were useful in telling the story of the Theatre. Janet Pearson from Historical Collections wrote The Anatomical Theatre at the University of Virginia, but the initial spark for the exhibit came from the late M.C. Wilhelm, M.D.

Blog post written by Janet Pearson.

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