The Doctors’ Riot

The practice of medicine is considered an honorable profession. This was not always the case. One of the first major civil disturbances in post-Revolutionary America was precipitated by popular anger directed at the discipline. The so-called Doctors’ Riot began on 16 April 1788 and killed as many as two dozen people.

Oddly, the incident is almost entirely forgotten today.

In the late 18th century, the state of New York had a single formal medical school (Columbia). But if one wanted to practice as a doctor, another avenue was to attend lectures at local hospitals and enroll in sketchy private schools of anatomy, hoping to learn enough to muddle through patient care.

Anatomical dissection was a major facet of early medical education, though many saw the practice as sacrilegious. In early 1788, New York City newspapers ran several sensational stories about medical students stealing corpses from local cemeteries (usually potters’ fields and the so-called Negro Burial Ground). While some of the reports were rumor and hearsay, there was definitely a kernel of truth to the allegations.

In February of that year, a group of the city’s free and enslaved blacks submitted a petition to the Common Council complaining of “young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic… [who] under cover of the night, in the most wanton sallies of excess… dig up bodies of our deceased friends and relatives, carrying them away without respect for age or sex.”

Astoundingly, the group didn’t ask for a cessation to the practice, only that it be “conducted with the decency and propriety which the solemnity of such occasion requires” !!

The tepid petition was ignored; it seems that stealing poor black bodies was no big deal. But on 21 February 1788, the Advertiser reported that the body of a young white woman had been stolen from Trinity Churchyard.

THAT was a different story.

A group of angry (white) locals went to Trinity and exhumed several graves upon hearing this news. They found at least one of the coffins empty. Enraged, they descended on New York Hospital, which was known to host private anatomy lectures and demonstrations.

An officer in the local militia wrote what happened next:

“The cry of barbarity… was soon spread, [those] young sons of Galen [a poetic allusion to a physician in Ancient Greece] fleeing in every direction. One took refuge in a chimney. The hospital apartments were ransacked. In the anatomy room were found three fresh bodies – one boiling in a kettle, and two others cut up with certain parts… hanging in a most brutal position. The circumstances, together with the wanton and apparent inhuman complexion of the room, exasperated the mob beyond all bounds, [resulting in] the total destruction of every anatom[ic specimen] in the hospital.”

Although most of the doctors and medical students fled when the shovel-wielding rabble appeared, a handful remained to guard the valuable collection of anatomical and pathological displays, many imported. Their efforts were in vain, and the specimens were dragged out in the street and set ablaze.

A mob then went around town looking for other (entirely uninvolved) doctors and medical students. They descended on Columbia, where they searched the anatomical theatre, museum, chapel, library, and even student’s bedrooms for signs of dissection. Finding no bodies (students had removed them when forewarned), the men searched several other doctors’ homes, and then marched down Broadway to the jail. By later that day, thousands of angry men were demanding that the doctors hiding inside the jail be brought outside.

The militia was called to restore order. Bricks and stones were thrown. Shots were fired. People fell dead.

In the aftermath, vigilante groups set up night watches at cemeteries. And worried prominent physicians in town took out ads saying that they were uninvolved and had never robbed bodies in the city – ‘in the city’ being an important distinction, since the potters’ fields and Negro Burial Ground were outside the city limits.

A grand jury never returned any indictments, but the reputation of the medical profession in New York was sullied for decades.

In the year after the Doctors Riot, the New York legislature passed “An Act to Prevent the Odious Practice of Digging Up and Removing for the Purpose of Dissection, Dead Bodies Interred in Cemeteries or Burial Places.” And although the number of crimes eligible for post mortem dissection was increased in that same statute, there were still major shortages of specimens. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that grave robbing ceased altogether.

But the riot did produce another long-term effect. It led to one of the earliest medical licensing systems in the country, by the terms of which would-be doctors had to apprentice with established and respectable physicians or else attend at least two years of formal medical school in addition to passing a rigorous state exam. This signaled the death-knell for the private and unregulated fly-by-night anatomy schools that were once so common throughout the colonies.

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