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Although there are reports of demonstrations of human dissection in America as far back as 1638, pressing demand for cadavers most likely began in 1745 with the first formal course in anatomy taught at the University of Pennsylvania.1 At that time, the only legally available cadavers were those of executed criminals, provided under laws such as the Massachusetts' Body of Liberties. The remainder of the demand was most likely met by the grave robbing activities of the anatomy instructors and their students.2
Interestingly, the few dissection laws that existed in the late 18th century were not aimed at meeting the educational needs of those in medical training. Rather, by preventing a formal burial, dissection was viewed as a form of supra–capital punishment. For example, to discourage dueling, a 1784 Massachusetts law dictated that a slain duelist would be either buried in a public place without a coffin with a stake driven through his body, or given to a surgeon for dissection. To this day the only federal law pertaining to cadaver supply was passed in 1790 and gave federal judges the right to add dissection to the sentence of death for murder.1,3
The early 19th century saw a proliferation of medical schools and a concurrent explosion in demand for cadavers. Grave robbing was rampant despite laws in some states forbidding the activity, and at least a dozen riots occurred between 1765 and 1852,1 the most famous of which was the New York Doctors' Riot of 1788. A doctor working in the anatomy lab at the Hospital Society waved the arm of a cadaver at a boy looking in the window. The boy ran home and told his father who, upon visiting the grave of the boy's recently deceased mother, found that it had been robbed. In the ensuing events, the laboratory was burned down and seven rioters killed, marking this as the bloodiest riot of its kind. In response, New York passed a 1789 law forbidding grave robbing and allowing the bodies of criminals to be used for dissection.4
Perhaps no incident, though, affected public opinion (and soon thereafter law) more than the infamous case of William Burke and William Hare of Edinburgh. Hare owned a lodging house where a lodger died in 1827, leaving a debt of £4. Hare and his friend Burke were paid £7,10 shillings for the body by a local laboratory, and were so impressed with the profit that they conspired to lure people to the lodging house, intoxicate them with alcohol, then suffocate them. Burke and Hare were caught and put on trial in 1829 after murdering 16 people. Hare turned King's evidence in exchange for immunity, and Burke was hung, dissected, and put on public display for a throng of 30 000. This episode inspired the Warburton Anatomy Act of 1832, which provided unclaimed bodies to anatomists, ultimately ending grave robbing in Britain.1,5 In response to the Burke and Hare case, Massachusetts passed the similar though less strongly worded Anatomy Act of 1831.1
Several states received the incentive they needed to enact such laws in 1878 when US Senator John Scott Harrison (son of president W. H. Harrison and father of president Benjamin Harrison) died and was buried three days later in Ohio. Having received word that the body of William Devin, a friend of the family, had been stolen from its grave and transported to the Medical College of Ohio, Senator Harrison's son and his nephew surveyed the college. Although they found no trace of Devin, as they were about to leave, they spotted the body of Senator Harrison being hoisted into the dissecting room! Soon thereafter anatomy laws were passed in Ohio and Indiana.1
Other states followed suit and by the beginning of the 20th century, cadavers were supplied almost exclusively from unclaimed bodies. This remained true until 1968 when the adoption of the Uniform Anatomy Gift Act (UAGA) by all 50 states replaced the patchwork of legislation and ensured the right of a donor to bequeath his or her own body to medical science and education.6 Subsequently, the proportion of cadavers from unclaimed sources dwindled, and in the modern day the vast majority of cadavers are supplied by donor bequest.7 This spirit of volunteerism reflects the drastic shift in public perception, from dissection as desecration, to bequeathal as a gift that enables the next generation of physicians to provide competent care.
Tward AD, Patterson HA. From Grave Robbing to Gifting: Cadaver Supply in the United States. JAMA. 2002;287(9):1183. doi:10.1001/jama.287.9.1183-JMS0306-6-1