The fascinating dissection of Harriet, the corpse separated nerve by nerve that lit up forensic medicine

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If you stop by the bookstore of the Faculty of Medicine of the Drexel University, in Philly, chances are you’re in for quite a scare. Scare that will be followed by an uncomfortable gesture. Discomfort from which you will jump to surprise. And surprise that will give way to absolute fascination. There, locked in a glass case located in the Student Activities Center of the faculty, received visitors until at least a couple of years ago a dissected human body, tall, well bleached and with bulbous eyes with an expression of superlative and perennial surprise.

The most curious thing is that the corpse does not preserve the skin.

Not the muscles.

Not the veins.

Not cartilage.

Not the bones.

The body, baptized “Harriet”, is pure nerve.

And it is in the most literal and full sense of the word. “Harriet” is the result of the surgical virguería of the end of the 19th century, the result of meticulous and pioneering work —it had so much of both that there were those who believed it impossible— elaborated more than 130 years ago by the Dr. Rufus B. Weavera former professor at Hahnemann Medical Collegenow known as Drexel College.

Perhaps in the age of 3D printing, Harriet’s vision is less stirring than it was in 1900, when medical students observed her; but the effect is revived by knowing two things. One, that Harriet are the remains of a real person, a former employee of the center who died at the age of 35; two, that to give it form Weaver had to arm himself with patience and separate, strand by strand, the entire nervous system. The process took five to six months. and it only failed in the intercostal area.

This is his story.

With the eye of an anatomist and the pulse of a seamstress

In the late 1880s, Dr. Weaver was a well-established and respected professional. He was close to 50, he had made a name for himself identifying and removing bodies from the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg and had been working for some time as a professor of Anatomy at the Hahnemann Medical College. In mind, however, Weaver had a project that would earn him fame in the US and abroad: complete a total dissection of the cerebrospinal system. During his travels in Europe he had seen partial works, but none that showed a complete “x-ray”.

Help for her homework came, it is believed, from where she least expected: from Harrite Cole, a young African-American woman who cleaned the anatomy lab. Although she was only 35 years old, Cole’s health was very delicate. she suffered tuberculosis and his forces were badly sapped. Before he died in 1888, however, he decided to donate his body to science and offer Dr. Weaver the opportunity he was seeking for his ambitious nervous system project.

For the next six months, Professor Weaver, armed with patience, eyesight, and the pulse of a seamstress, set about removing the entire cerebrospinal nervous system. He arrives with a look at the result to understand that the job was anything but easy. Only the base of the skull demanded two weeks of dedicationalmost half a month during which he cut the bones piece by piece to keep the dura intact and that the eyes remain attached to the optic nerves.

With the help of a very fine needle, he separated the cranial nerves, the spinal cord and its nerves. Then she used bandages, gauze pads and alcohol-soaked pads and applied white lead-based paint and shellac to preserve them. Extracting and preserving the intricate system of filaments that made up Harriet Cole’s system was only part of the challenge. To shape the composition that still amazes Drexel medical students today, 13 decades later, she had to suspend the jumble of fibers from a special blackboard with thousands of pins.

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The result, baptized “Harriet” in a nod to the donor, served Weaver for his anatomy classes at Hahnemann Medical College; but her virgueria soon transcended the walls of the laboratory and even the limits of Philadelphia. In 1839, some three years after the professor’s death, the board was introduced and achieved distinction at the famous Word’s Columbian Exhibition. Since then, Harriet’s image has been reproduced in books, articles… Even today, more than 130 years later, the Legacy Center in Drexel University welcomes applications from teachers who want to use their images for their classes at universities or secondary schools.


Over time the focus has also been on Cole herself. Years ago precisely the Legacy Center decided to go beyond the legacy story since the end of the 19th century and delve into the figure of the former Hahnemann cleaner. Specifically, he raised some questions: Did Harriet really exist? And if she was like that, Who was? Why did you donate your body? Under what circumstances did he decide it? Did she know what Professor Weaver would use her corpse for? During their investigation they found many clues and circumstantial evidence, but not conclusive data.

The Legacy Center located in the census an entry from 1870 referring to an African-American woman named Harriet Cole who worked as a domestic servant and lived in Philadelphia, right in the same district where Hahnemann College was located; also a death certificate with her name signed in March 1888 and which attributes the cause of death to tuberculosis. Moreover, as “burial place” the center dedicated to medical study is indicated.

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Does that mean that Harriet is the same person that, stripped of muscles, veins, bones and cartilage, we continue to see pinned to Drexel University?

The institution recognizes that it is very difficult to know. The gaps in the records of the center between 1869 and 1900 make it difficult to go further. In any case, slide that is not unreasonable to think that Harriet Cole was a poor woman who, faced with the prospect of imminent death, decided to bequeath her body to Weaver and thus avoid her relatives the costly expenses of a burial. Although it may surprise us today, in 1888 donations were not documented very rigorously and often medical schools resorted to unclaimed corpses from hospitals, prisons and asylums.

What we are left with today, without a doubt, is the fascinating history —including its historical gaps and boasts of surgical virguería— of the nerve map baptized as “Harriet”.

that and the huge eyes that continue to amaze Drexel students.

Images Drexel University (College of Medicine and Legacy Center)

If you stop by the bookstore of the Faculty of Medicine of the Drexel University, in Philly, chances are you’re…

If you stop by the bookstore of the Faculty of Medicine of the Drexel University, in Philly, chances are you’re…

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