Hannibal’s Mad Doctor
Dr. Joseph McDowell | Hannibal, Missouri
Joseph Nash McDowell (1805-1868) was one of the most influential and respected doctors west of the Mississippi in the 1840s until his death in 1868. He is primarily remembered for his grave-digging practices, where he illegally exhumed corpses in order to study human anatomy. He is also known for his influence on Mark Twain, and was likely the inspiration for Twain's fictional character Dr. Robinson in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Dr. McDowell moved to St. Louis in 1839 with a reputation that preceded him. He had previously worked in Kentucky, Philadelphia and Ohio at various medical facilities, and studied at Transylvania University in Kentucky. In 1840 he founded Missouri's first medical school, Missouri Medical College. It was the first medical school founded west of the Mississippi River. After McDowell's death, it became affiliated with the Washington University School of Medicine in 1899.
In the 1840s, using cadavers to study human anatomy was a highly uncommon, and frowned upon, practice in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, only 5 states allowed the dissection of non-felons for medical and educational purposes. Three of these laws were soon repealed, leaving the practice legal in only New York and Massachusetts. Dissecting cadavers was crucial to gain a comprehensive understanding of human anatomy and to enhance and develop more accurate medical practices; however, the public was wary of the idea, believing it to be a desecration of the dead. In large part, this feeling was due to religious reasons; Christianity, for example, calls for burial of the dead. Exhuming the dead was not only disrespectful but could also be considered sacrilegious; it was believed a body needed to be intact to enter Heaven.
Dr. McDowell believed the practice to be necessary in order to advance medicine and his own personal understanding of the human body. During his time teaching at the medical school, he not only encouraged but also required that his students perform at least one human dissection before their graduation. This illegal practice served as a form of bonding for the students; with the practice being strictly taboo to most of society they had only each other with which to discuss what they had done and how it impacted their education.
McDowell’s Infamy further increased after the unusual burial of McDowell's deceased child, Amanda. Although a leading proponent of the importance of science in medicine, McDowell also had strong Spiritual beliefs, fired by a vision of his dead mother, which he believed helped him evade arrest after exhuming a former patient from her grave. Author, and cousin, Mary Ridenbaugh documented his telling of that experience: McDowell believed that traditional burial "stifled the soul" and that a different type of interment would facilitate communication between the living and dead - this was his aim when interring his daughter in a container of preserving alcohol, kept secured in his cave workspace in Hannibal, Missouri. However, when McDowell learned that some locals had been daring each other to break into the cave, and disrespecting his child's remains by opening the copper coffin to scare themselves with ghost stories, the Dr. had the body removed for a safer and more traditional burial in the family vault behind the newly built Missouri Medical College. McDowell's unconventional dealing with grief further added to the swirl of lurid rumors around him, including a fable of the body being forcibly removed by angry Hannibal citizens.
During the onset of the Civil War, McDowell was recruited as the Surgeon General of the Confederate Army of the West. His medical school was taken over by the Union and temporarily became the Gratiot Street Prison. During this time, there were numerous reports of bones being removed from the building, and whispers that it was haunted spread through the public. McDowell returned to St. Louis in 1865 to find the school in ruins. Together with a colleague, he began to rebuild the Medical College. He died three years later, and is buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery, together with his other family members, in St. Louis.


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