Saturday, April 23, 2011

Debunking a myth: In medieval Christianity, dissection was often practiced

Studying dead women’s cut-up bodies was not what Katharine Park originally set out to do. “I was writing a social history of medicine in Florence, a topic I chose basically just because I got to go” to that fabled Italian city, she joked.

But while working in those ancient halls amid so much beauty, Park said, “I kept finding stories about women’s bodies being cut up. I remember I came across one entry in a diary, where the husband says his wife died, and he requested her to be autopsied. I was like, huh? Autopsy?”

Most scholars assume that autopsy and dissection were taboo in medieval Europe; if they were conducted, they were illicit and done only on the bodies of criminals by intrepid scientists and doctors, flying in the face of clerical authority in the name of pursuing knowledge.

But Park, the Samuel Zemurray Jr. and Doris Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of the History of Science, discovered quite another story in the Florentine libraries. “This was a very wealthy, patrician woman. The story didn’t compute. And I kept finding little tiny bits and pieces about female bodies being opened over the years. By the late ’90s, I had a critical mass of the stuff, and it all felt so counterintuitive. It was time to see what it was all about.”

Click here to read this article from the Harvard Gazette