Saturday, January 15, 2011
Lost documents reveal first human dissection in India
The Times of India for January 13 has a fascinating story from Kolkata (Calcutta). Doctors at the anatomy department of the Calcutta Medical College and Hospital have unearthed papers documenting Asia's first human dissection, carried out in secrecy by a Bengali vaidya (traditional Hindu physician), Madhusudan Gupta.
There were complicated social customs behind the undercover nature of the procedure. While the precursor of the Calcutta Medical College was built in 1822, with the aim of training Indians to assist British army doctors, no examination of human remains was part of the syllabus. This was because Indian doctors could only be trained in ayurveda (the ancient Hindu science of health and medicine), and unani (medical treatment based on the "four humors," blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile). Like the lofty physicians of pre-eighteenth century Britain, they could not soil their hands, because of the social stigma of even touching a corpse, let alone dissecting it.
These papers tell a dramatic story from the year 1835, revealing how the college principal and the head of the anatomy department organized the smuggling in of a corpse, a daring feat because of Hindu lookouts who kept vigil on the college to make sure that nothing like that happened. A local noble, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, was involved, as well as two British doctors, named Gudiff and Bremley.
The corpse, an unclaimed male body, was dissected in an outhouse of the college by Gupta, while Gudiff and Bremley watched. Every step in the procedure was documented, making up a folder of instructive notes for students -- and it is these papers that have been unearthed, much to the interest of modern anatomists.
In a fascinating coincidence of history, the papers indicate that Gupta was trained in the art of dissection by a Scot named David Hare. It is an echo of the infamous Burke and Hare story, of two Scottish grave robbers who supplied bodies for dissection at a time when British social customs made it was almost as hard to carry out demonstrations in anatomy, as it was in far-off India. (See illustration above.)