Rufus Weaver was an anatomist of the late 19th century. His specialty was preparing anatomical samples, that is, preserving human body parts and organs for medical classes at Hahnemann Medical Collage. Weaver’s most famous project was the retrieval, preservation, and display of an entire human nervous system, which had never been done before. In 1888, Weaver dissected a body and separated out the nervous system: nerves, brain, and eyeballs, and preserved it in the preparation you see here. The specimen is unnerving to anyone who sees it, and you have to wonder who this was in life. It wasn’t until 1915 that she was identified as “Harriet Cole,” a black woman who worked at the college, and was said to have willed her body to science.
When another Hahnemann physician, George Geckeler, restored the mounted model in 1960, LIFE magazine devoted a splashy photo spread to the effort. The writer recounted how a scrubwoman who had been ignored by everyone in the laboratory “stared in fascination at cadavers” and “eavesdropp[ed]” on lectures. She osmosed the chatter, the author continued; Harriet supposedly “took to heart [Weaver’s] complaints about a shortage of corpses” and “willed her body to him.” There’s no indication of how the writer gleaned this information—this supposedly intimate understanding of a long-dead woman’s perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It seems that “no one went back to fact-check” the basic story, Herbison says. “Whoever said it first, that’s the thing that you use.” Details carry over from one story to another like sprawling arithmetic.
One photograph accompanying the LIFE story shows Geckeler stooping so his eyes align with the ones on the preparation. He scrunches his own, like someone puzzling over a painting, studying the canvas as if trying to decipher genius suspended between the fibers. By this point, the myth of “Harriet Cole” had grown to include not just Weaver’s work, but the woman herself—a lowly person made spectacular, in every sense. A fascinating object never quite or fully human, but almost looking the part.
That story is hard to believe, considering that willing one’s body to science was not a thing in 1888. Cadavers for medical specimens at the time came from grave robbing and claiming bodies that would otherwise be buried by the state. Alaina McNaughton, Matt Herbison, and Brandon Zimmerman have been trying to track down the mystery of Harriet Cole. Was she a real person, and was she the owner of this nervous system? Weaver left few clues as to how he prepared the specimen, and the identity of the donor was not in his records. Read what the team found out about Weaver’s work and the person whose nerves are still on display 130 years later at Atlas Obscura.
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