Medical Dissection and the East Marshall Street Well

This module was adapted from Rader, K (2021). SCTS 200: Science in Society. Undergraduate course, Virginia Commonwealth University and has been reviewed and approved by the EMSW Project Family Representative Council.

VCU Health Sciences students bow their heads in front of the ancestral remains of individuals recovered from the East Marshall Street Well during a prayer given by Del. Delores McQuinn. November 25, 2019.

Introduction

This learning module is part of the VCU History and Health: Racial Equity series, which seeks to build a foundational awareness of health equity, diversity, equity and inclusion concepts across the entire VCU and VCU Health community. Additional program events occur monthly. Learn more about the Program here.

Learning Objectives

  • Increase awareness of the history of grave robbing and the use of black cadavers in 19th Century medical education at MCV. 
  • Increase awareness of VCU’s East Marshall Street Well Project. 
  • Increase awareness of the ways in which structural racism has played a role in health disparities in Richmond.

In April 1994, human bones and artifacts from the 19th century were discovered in an  abandoned well uncovered during construction of the Kontos Building on Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Campus. The well’s contents are believed to have been  discarded in the 1800s by medical staff. Although covered by the media in 1994, the discovery  remained largely unaddressed by the university until awareness of the well’s history was  included in Dr. Shawn Utsey’s 2011 documentary, “Until the Well Runs Dry.” This documentary  (linked below) examined the issue of grave robbing and use of black cadavers in medical education during the 19th century. Since that time, VCU has committed itself to moving forward in a manner reflecting the dignity that should be accorded these individuals and has created the East Marshall Street Well Project (linked below) to facilitate a process with the community that ensures the remains receive appropriate study, memorialization and reburial. 

This module examines the role of grave robbing and the use of black cadavers in medical education at MCV during the 19th century. The module also provides information about the East Marshall Street Well Project, including the 2019 memorialization ceremony.

NOTE: Users who are pursuing the Unlocking Health Equity badge or credit through the VCUHS DEI learning requirement must complete and submit the Reflection Activity at the bottom of the page.

Learning Material

The History of Medical Dissection

This lecture by Jodi Koste, Archivist and HeadSpecial Collection at VCU Health Sciences Library, describes the history of medical dissectionand medical school training. The practice of disinterring cadavers (i.e., grave robbing or bodysnatching) by Resurrectionists is described with specific reference to its role in the history of the Medical College of Virginia.

[NOTE: Watch the video from 15:22 to 43:40].

East Marshall Street Well Project - VCU Exposure (2020): "A Journey Home"

This brief article describes the discovery of human remains in an abandoned well uncoveredduring construction of VCU’s Kontos Building. The article then overviews the history of the EastMarshall Street Well Project and describes the 2019 memorialization ceremony that returnedto Richmond the remains of 44 adults and nine children recovered from the well — most ofwhom were African or African Americans and enslaved.

(Access the article by clicking on the yellow highlighted words above)

Finished in 1845, the Egyptian Building served as the first medical education building for MCV and included adissecting room.

As a part of the 2019 memorialization ceremony, members of the Elegba Folklore Society led theceremonial pouring of libations and prayer.

Additional Resources

Until the Well Runs Dry : Medicine and the Exploitation of Black Bodies: (59 min. documentary by Shawn O Utsey; Iman Shabazz; Burn Baby Burn Production; 2011, Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of African American Studies)

This  documentary explores the practice of grave robbing for purposes of medical dissection that was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. During the 1800's, Richmond, Virginia was a bustling market for the domestic trade in enslaved Africans, and as a consequence had become a literal black market in black bodies, both living and dead. The legacy of grave robbing for medical dissection is so indelibly etched into the psyches of African Americans that today many long-time Richmond (VA) residents still recount stories from their childhood of warnings to stay clear of the Medical College of Virginia late at night for fear that they might be snatched away to the dissecting room never to be seen or heard from again. (Viewing the documentary requires VCU/VCUHS employee or student credentials)

The East Marshall Street Well Project website: This VCU website describes the history of the East Marshall Street Well Project, including the final recommendations report from the project’s Family Representative Council.  

Misrepresenting Race: Biases against Black Americans persist into the present day and impede equity in health care. This 2021 New England Journal of Medicine article, written by a coalition of Black bioethics scholars and their allies, argues (p. 6): “Medical education and research are intertwined and jointly responsible for perpetuating misunderstandings of race. Students carry such misinformation with them into the clinic, where their implicit biases and misconceptions perpetuate disparities in health care.” 

Abolition Medicine: This 2-page article published in The Lancet in 2020 explains the role of abolition medicine in addressing racial health disparities. The author argues (p. 159), “Abolition medicine means challenging race-based diagnostic tools and treatment guidelines that reinforce antiquated and scientifically inaccurate notions of biological race. It means integrating longitudinal anti racist training into medical education, including the history of racism in medicine and structural factors that produce racial health disparities, while actively recruiting, retaining, and supporting Black and other  minoritised faculty, staff, and students”. 

Reflection Activity

DIRECTIONS: Users who are pursuing VCU’s Unlocking Health Equity badge or who are seeking credit through  VCUHS Human Resources must complete and submit this Reflection Activity. The Google Form link below will take  users to the Reflection Activity Submission Form. The form asks the user to submit basic biographical information (e.g., name, department) and to answer one of the following prompts. Your response must be a minimum of 250 words. Users may select whichever one prompt most interests them. 

PROMPT OPTION 1: How does the history of medical dissection and the discovery of the human remains in the East Marshall Street Well reflect what Dr. Shawn Utsey calls “the exploitation of Black bodies for medical research”? What are the consequences of lack of respect for persons found in the Well –  both for the Richmond community and for medical research? (minimum 500 words). 

-OR- 

PROMPT OPTION 2: In its final report, the East Marshall Street Well (EMSW) Project’s Family Representative  Council recommended that there be a “Physical memorialization of the EMSW Ancestors and their experiences at  four locations within or near the Kontos Building. Most immediately, VCU should place signage indicating the excavation location and historical significance of the Ancestral Remains near the building entrance”. What ideas or strategies would you recommend for ensuring that students and VCU/VCU Health employees visit the EMSW Kontos Building signage to learn about this important VCU history? (minimum 500 words). 

Submit Your Reflection Here.