Dissection of cadavers has long been a rite of passage for first-year medical school students. In 1925, two students proved so adept at the task that their professor set them up with a particular challenge: to dissect a body’s entire nervous system, from the brain stem down to the base of the spinal cord, keeping the entire network intact. The project took the two brainiacs 1,500 hours, and their remarkable handiwork is still on display today.
L.P. Ramsdell and M.A. Schalck were bespectacled members of the class of 1928 of what was then called Kirksville College of Osteopathy & Surgery, in Missouri. The institution was founded in 1892 by Dr. Andrew Taylor Still, a physician and surgeon known as the father of osteopathy, a branch of medical practice that emphasizes the treatment of medical disorders through the manipulation and massage of the bones, joints, and muscles. Today the institution is called A.T. Still University.
The study of anatomy dates back thousands of years to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, but the science of anatomical study developed later, and was notably promoted by Leonardo da Vinci for artistic purposes. In the late 1500s, anatomical theaters in Italy provided education and entertainment: hired hands would cut away the skin of cadavers, professors would lecture, and anyone was welcome to sit in the theater to observe.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, medical schools in the U.S. and the U.K. formalized the practice of studying anatomy through cadaver dissection. Bodies were often obtained from poorhouses and prisons. (The demand for cadavers also gave rise to the notorious and nefarious practice of body snatching from graveyards to provide a profitable supply.)
At Kirksville’s Osteopathic College, first-year students were required to dissect an arm to gain understanding of the interconnectedness of bones, joints, muscles, and nerves that underpins the practice of osteopathy. Ramsdell and Schalck’s work was so meticulous and detailed that they were asked to complete an entire nervous system.
The two worked down from the brain to the spinal cord, carefully cutting through skin, muscle, and tissue to expose the nerve fibers without severing them. The project took them five months. The body’s identity has been lost to history, though it likely came from a prison or poorhouse.
“After they cleared each nerve, they rolled them in cotton batting soaked in some kind of preservative,” Jason Haxton, director of the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still, told Live Science. “So, as they worked their way down, there was just a mass of little rolls of cotton.”
Ramsdell and Schalck mounted the nervous system on a board of shellacked wood and labeled the display, which was exhibited around the country at museums and medical conferences.
“The two young men have dissected out a complete nervous system,” The Journal of Osteopathy reported in June 1926. “Brain, spinal cord, nerve trunks with their branches, sympathetic nerves, ganglia, vagus and branches are intact and free from all other tissue. It is the first time the task has ever been accomplished here.”
Today, the fruits of their labor can be seen at the Museum of Osteopathic Medicine at Andrew Taylor Still University, in Kirksville, Missouri. The museum includes historical medical photographs, documents, and books dating from the early 1800s from the private collection of Andrew Taylor Still.
Live Science reports that only three other such intact hand-removed dissections exist today: at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., at Drexel University in Philadelphia, and at a medical museum in Thailand. (Body Worlds, a traveling exhibition, displays a nervous system extracted by chemicals.) Museum director, Jason Haxton, has said that its display has been valued at $1 million.
“Medical students come into the museum and stare at it in amazement,” Haxton told Live Science. “Sometimes, they’ll run in after a test to check their work. People familiar with dissection say this is truly a miracle piece.”
In a nice bit of modest understatement, The Journal of Osteopathy, reporting on Ramsdell and Schalck’s achievement in 1926, wrote: “Faculty members at K.O.C. state that it is a remarkable bit of work.”