When someone dies at the hospital, the body is moved to the morgue, for temporary storage. Today's morgues are refrigerated, of course, to keep the bodies from decaying too quickly.

Dying (like birth) used to be something that happened at home. When hospitals became the centre of all health care activities, people began to think that death (like birth) was an event that should happen in the hospital. Now attitudes are changing again, and many people with terminal illnesses prefer to die at home. We seem to be coming full circle.

The tools in this elegant, velvet-lined box had a morbid purpose: cutting into dead human bodies. When this set was used, around 1870, it could have been for an anatomy lesson in the medical school, or for an autopsy in the hospital.

Whose bodies were used? Not likely the rich. Many people believed that cutting into the bodies of the dead was disrespectful, like mutilation. Anatomy schools collected the bodies of criminals, the insane, or people who just didn't have any family or friends to bury them.

In the 1800s, doctors began to look at a dead patient in a different way. They began to see the dead body as an Read More
When someone dies at the hospital, the body is moved to the morgue, for temporary storage. Today's morgues are refrigerated, of course, to keep the bodies from decaying too quickly.

Dying (like birth) used to be something that happened at home. When hospitals became the centre of all health care activities, people began to think that death (like birth) was an event that should happen in the hospital. Now attitudes are changing again, and many people with terminal illnesses prefer to die at home. We seem to be coming full circle.

The tools in this elegant, velvet-lined box had a morbid purpose: cutting into dead human bodies. When this set was used, around 1870, it could have been for an anatomy lesson in the medical school, or for an autopsy in the hospital.

Whose bodies were used? Not likely the rich. Many people believed that cutting into the bodies of the dead was disrespectful, like mutilation. Anatomy schools collected the bodies of criminals, the insane, or people who just didn't have any family or friends to bury them.

In the 1800s, doctors began to look at a dead patient in a different way. They began to see the dead body as an opportunity to learn more about disease. This didn't help the patient much (being already dead) but it could help future patients.

If a living patient had tuberculosis, for instance, doctors could observe sounds in the chest and the raised body temperature. But if this patient died, doctors could open up the body and look at the internal organs. This (called an autopsy) could reveal different symptoms, like damaged tissue on the lungs. This allowed doctors to understand the cause of tuberculosis and perhaps to devise better treatments.

The rachiotomy saw has two parallel blades used to saw vertebrae apart. Yikes!

Not everyone who dies in the hospital has an autopsy performed on his or her body. Today the procedure is performed only when the cause of death is uncertain, and this is rare. Back when autopsies were performed routinely as a way to learn more about disease, it was mostly the bodies of the poor that were autopsied. Sometimes signing consent to an autopsy was required before being admitted to a hospital, if you were poor and unable to pay. Private patients were generally exempt.

The trocar is an instrument used for piercing a tissue or organ and taking a sample, which can then be analyzed.

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Instrument Set

Post-mortem instrument set in purple velvet lined box, around 1870.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Rachiotomy Saw

Rachiotomy Saw

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1940
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Liver Trocar

Liver Trocar

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
c. 1920
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Most medical students today have the chance to study human anatomy (the parts that make up the body) by cutting open and taking apart a dead body. Today most of these come from people who agreed to donate their body to help educate the next generation of doctors. But back in the 1800s and early 1900s there were few people who were willing to do this, so there was a shortage of bodies. Sometimes, the only way to get your hands on a body was to steal one from a fresh grave. Grave-robbing was a real problem in eastern Canada in the mid- to late 1800s—people guarded the graves of their loved ones to make sure that the bodies weren't carted off and sold to a medical school.

When bodies for dissection were scarce, medical students learned from anatomy demonstrations: the instructor at the front with the body, the students watching. As early as 1600 there were special anatomy theatres built for this purpose at universities in Europe. By 1900 medical students in Canada were given the opportunity to get up close and personal with a corpse, and do the dissection themselves.

Leftover human tissue is a common by-product of the activities in the hospital. What hap Read More
Most medical students today have the chance to study human anatomy (the parts that make up the body) by cutting open and taking apart a dead body. Today most of these come from people who agreed to donate their body to help educate the next generation of doctors. But back in the 1800s and early 1900s there were few people who were willing to do this, so there was a shortage of bodies. Sometimes, the only way to get your hands on a body was to steal one from a fresh grave. Grave-robbing was a real problem in eastern Canada in the mid- to late 1800s—people guarded the graves of their loved ones to make sure that the bodies weren't carted off and sold to a medical school.

When bodies for dissection were scarce, medical students learned from anatomy demonstrations: the instructor at the front with the body, the students watching. As early as 1600 there were special anatomy theatres built for this purpose at universities in Europe. By 1900 medical students in Canada were given the opportunity to get up close and personal with a corpse, and do the dissection themselves.

Leftover human tissue is a common by-product of the activities in the hospital. What happens to the excised tumours? The amputated legs? The liposuctioned fat? Chances are that these are put into biohazard containers, and burned, either in an on-site incinerator (a very hot furnace) or transported to an incineration facility specializing in medical waste.

Organ donation wasn't an issue before organ transplantation was possible, and that was only in the late 1970s. Some people have religious beliefs that a body should not be cut into after death. These beliefs must be respected. But people who don't share these beliefs are encouraged to donate their organs after they are through using them. These organs, transplanted into someone else, can really improve the lives of others. It's a fantastic gift.

The first organs successfully transplanted from one person to another were kidneys. These operations, first performed in the 1950s, were only temporarily successful, mainly because the body tends to “reject” foreign tissues: this is our immune system just doing its job. Researchers looked for ways to suppress the body's immune system, to trick it into accepting tissue from another body. First they tried things like irradiating the entire body with x-rays, and this was sometimes successful. Then, in 1978, the drug Cyclosporine came on the scene, and it was extremely effective. Following this there were many more successful transplants—of kidneys, lungs, heart, liver, pancreas, and more.

© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Anatomy Students

Anatomy students with cadavers at McGill University in 1947.

Photo courtesy of National Archives of Canada

© National Archives of Canada


Drawing of a class in the anatomy

A drawing of a class in the anatomy theatre at the University of Toronto, 1884.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
1884
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Biohazard Containers

Biohazard Containers

Photo courtesy of Biomed Recovery and Disposal Ltd.
2001
© Biomed Recovery and Disposal Ltd.


Organ Donor Card for Ontario Residents

Organ Donor Card for Ontario Residents

Photo courtesy of Biomed Recovery and Disposal Ltd.
2000
© Biomed Recovery and Disposal Ltd.


A transplant operation

A transplant operation at Toronto General Hospital, with an organ on ice in the foreground.

Canada Science and Technology Museum, University Health Network Artifact Collection
1980s
© CSTM & UHN 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Observe evolution of hospitals, tools and treatments throughout the twentieth century;
  • Identify the evolution of medical technology and discuss its contribution to treatment and medical care;
  • Illustrate concepts in biology, identify specific diseases and treatments offered (past and present).

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