Cadavers at $2.50 Lured Americans to 1830s Paris: Lewis Lapham

The cover jacket of "The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris" by David McCullough. Source: Simon and Schuster via Bloomberg

At noon, the cadavers were delivered to the dissecting rooms at the Amphitheatre d’Anatomie -- carts had arrived earlier and dumped the bodies of naked men and women on the pavement outside. Corpses came cheap: An adult cost 6 francs or about $2.50; a child could be had for less.

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The amphitheater was big enough for 600 students. They smoked cigars to offset the nauseating smell of putrefaction and walked gingerly to avoid slipping on the fragments of flesh littering the floor. Larger pieces were fed to caged dogs.

It was a scene that in the 1830s drew students from all over to Paris, the medical capital of the world. Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the first Americans trained in the new clinical methods, wrote that to understand anatomy, he’d cut his subject “into inch pieces.” He could not have done so anywhere else, he added.

Upon returning to the U.S., Holmes taught at Harvard Medical School until 1882, expounding the benefits of dissection, the microscope and the stethoscope, all of which were largely unknown in the U.S.

I spoke with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, author of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” on the following topics:

1. Off to the City of Light

2. Ambitious to Excel

3. European Masterpieces

4. Pleasure From Work

5. French Resilience

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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