Clara Maass

The Dastardly Past:  Clara Maass.


August 24 marks the death of Clara Maass in 1901.  She was an American nurse with the commission in Cuba led by Walter Reed.  Their purpose was to confirm the method of transmission for Yellow Fever, which had been theorized by Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay.  Maass volunteered as a human subject, allowing herself to be bitten by an infected mosquito.  It resulted in a mild case of yellow fever from which she recovered.  She volunteered a second time, however, and died of the disease as a result.

The Reed Commission succeeded in its mission, thus making way for further discoveries, including an effective vaccine.  Sadly, however, Yellow Fever remains a scourge in tropical climates.  It is responsible for between 30,000 and 60,000 death a year according to the World Health Organization.

Anatomy Act of 1832

The Dastardly Past:  the Anatomy Act of 1832.

mortsafe 9

A mortsafe, installed by loved ones for the protection of graves

On July 19, 1832, the House of Lords passed the Anatomy Act in Great Britain.  Enlightenment thinking in the eighteenth century had resulted in an increase in the number of students enrolling in medical schools and, at the same time, higher expectations among the public for quality medical care.  This included surgery, which required close familiarity with human anatomy.  As a result, the demand for bodies in this era far outstripped what executioners and body-snatchers (called resurrectionists) could supply.  The provisions of the Anatomy Act outlined a procedure where licensed practitioners could claim bodies from among the dead of the workhouses.  Parliament hoped to fulfill scientific demand while also putting an end to the distressing practice of robbing graves.  The Act, however, only enjoyed partial success.

New York Doctor’s Riot

The Dastardly Past:  the New York Doctor’s Riot.


In April of 1788, a young boy peeps through a window into a dissecting room.  The medical student waves a dismembered arm at him and tells him it belonged to the boy’s recently deceased mother.  Upon investigation in Trinity Churchyard, the family discovers that the mother’s grave is indeed empty, and public sentiment boils over.  In the absence of regulated sources for cadavers, students of “physic,” as it was called then, had necessarily turned to robbing graves for bodies to dissect.  As long as the bodies belonged to the poor or to minorities, New Yorkers turned a blind eye.  This time an angry mob reacts against the desecration of their loved ones.  They march on the hospital and destroy the anatomy room.  The incident becomes so heated that it results in a two-day riot.  The militia and cavalry finally quell the mob, but not before almost 20 people die.