Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Cadavers for dissection

Mary V. Seeman
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sculpture of Job
Job by sculptor Marek Szwarc, bronze, 1935. Private collection.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, medical students in Europe found it very difficult to obtain what at the time was considered essential: adequate numbers of cadavers for an anatomy class. Morgues permitted access to unclaimed corpses, but there were never enough. In every medical school in Europe, there were always many more students than there were available bodies for them to dissect.

The problem was especially dire in Poland, a Catholic country for the most part, but multicultural for many centuries and home to substantial numbers of Jews.1 In 1921, 10% of the Polish population was Jewish but because Jews tended to live in the cities where the medical schools were located,2 30% of students in Polish medical schools were Jewish. In subsequent years leading up to World War II, that percentage sharply declined, but the problem of the availability of corpses persisted. Jewish law dictated that dead Jewish bodies had to be buried within 24 hours of death, could not be desecrated, and could not be used for benefit of any kind.3

This meant that despite the many Jewish students there were no Jewish cadavers available to the medical faculties.

At a later time, Jewish scholars were to view the act of donating one’s body to science as the very highest form of charity, so defined by the great Jewish teacher Maimonides—an anonymous gift that allows beneficiaries (in this case, medical students) to better serve their future patients and, thus, contribute to the common good.4 Polish rabbis of the interwar period, however, saw it differently and at first forbade Jewish corpses to be used for dissection.

Christian students believed this to be unfair. Why should they be sharing Christian corpses with Jewish students who were not providing any of their own? As described in several scholarly papers on this subject by Natalia Aleksiun, Christian students attributed the Jewish position on dead bodies to Jewish arrogance.5,6 They understood it as Jews effectively saying, “Our bodies are too holy to desecrate, but we don’t mind desecrating yours.” Fights and rioting broke out over this issue, and hostilities escalated between Christian and Jewish students. In many Polish universities, Jewish students were blocked by force from entering dissecting rooms. “No bodies, no dissecting rights.”

According to the archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in 1923 in Lwów (then Poland, now Ukraine), Jewish students were locked out of anatomy class; guards stood at the door and demanded to see evidence of membership in Wzajemna Pomoc Medyków, a student organization that excluded Jewish students.7 As a result of being locked out of anatomy class, Jewish students failed their anatomy exam that semester. They protested to the university administration in Lwów and, in an effort to appease both sides, in February 1924, the senate of Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów made a controversial decision: henceforth, Jewish medical students would no longer be prevented from entering dissecting rooms, but they could only dissect Jewish corpses.7 Christian corpses were reserved for Christian students.

Approximately three years later, in December 1926, the academic senates of Warsaw University in the Polish capital and Wilno University (then Poland, now Lithuania), passed the very same regulation.7 Jewish corpses had to be found somewhere, or there would be no Jewish medical students in Poland.

In Warsaw, medical students were somehow able to persuade the rabbis to allow eight Jewish bodies to be dissected, but the anatomy professor Edward Loth declared this number to be insufficient and forbade all Jewish students from participating in his classes until additional Jewish corpses could be found. In response to the ensuing outcry, Professor Orzechowski, the Dean of Warsaw Medical School, convened a special commission to look into the matter in greater depth. The commission recognized the difficulties facing Jewish students and ordered a return to the status quo ante—all available corpses were to be equally distributed among all students.7

This did not stop Jewish students in Warsaw from continuing their efforts to recruit Jewish cadavers. As an example, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes the following unusual ceremony at the Warsaw Medical School. In the middle of the night representatives of the Chevra Kadisha Society, responsible for ensuring proper Jewish funerals, came to the University dressed in black and carrying black candles. On their shoulders they bore a coffin containing the unclaimed corpse of Nachome Lipschitz, a woman who had died in the Warsaw Jewish Hospital. They carried the coffin seven times around the dissecting room of the University, chanting verses from the Psalms. The shammes (synagogue caretaker), in the name of the Jewish kehillah (community), begged the dead person’s forgiveness for donating her body to science.7 By elaborate ceremonies such as this, Jewish medical students were able for a time to procure sufficient corpses for dissection.

But the scarcity of corpses for students continued to be a problem. In March 1929, the Polish government was petitioned to open a central office to purchase corpses for all medical students of all faiths. The Education Committee of the Parliament rejected the proposal.7

A high level conference on the problem of supplying Jewish corpses to Polish Medical Schools was held in Warsaw on Dec. 10, 1929 under the chairmanship of the chief of the Educational Department, M. Suchodolsky. Delegates from the Universities of Warsaw, Wilno, Lwów, and Kraków were present, as well as representatives of the Jewish communities of Warsaw, Wilno, and Kraków. The head of the Jewish Hospital in Lwów also attended. Suchodolsky emphasized the need for regulation in the matter of medical school corpses. Warsaw Professor Loth insisted that Jewish students supply their own corpses. M. Vogodsky, representing the Jewish community of Wilno, pointed out that the furnishing of corpses was not the responsibility of students, but rather that of the government. However, a number of Polish professors agreed with Dr. Loth. M. Farbstein of the Warsaw Jewish community volunteered the information that Warsaw rabbis had agreed to provide corpses of individuals who died in hospital and whose bodies were not claimed by relatives within 48 hours. In a closing speech, Suchodolsky expressed satisfaction that progress was being made.7

He was mistaken. As described in various papers of the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the problem of Jewish cadavers in Medical Schools grew larger, not only in Poland, but in other European countries as well.8

In January 1933, despite the fact that a record of 123 Jewish corpses had been received the preceding year, university authorities barred Jewish students from anatomy in Warsaw Medical School on the grounds that the supply of Jewish corpses was insufficient. In December, 1934, the matter remained unsolved, even though the Warsaw rabbinate again agreed to provide all unclaimed Jewish bodies for dissection. That same year, there was a demonstration in Lwów on the issue of the relative lack of Jewish cadavers. In 1935, all Jewish medical students at the University of Warsaw lost credit for one semester of study; they were not permitted to take their examinations in anatomy because, for want of bodies, they had not completed the dissection course.7

The fight over corpses expanded into new areas of strife between Christian and Jewish medical students. In November 1935, twenty Jewish medical students were severely beaten at the University of Poznan.7 For some years there had been a growing demand, led by students and championed by right wing political parties, for a tight quota on the admission of Jewish students, not only to medical school, but to all Polish educational institutions. Christian students wanted separation not only of Jewish and Christian cadavers, but of Jewish and Christian live bodies as well. Jewish students were told to sit on the left in class while Christian students sat on the right, a form of segregation called ghetto benches, well described in a 1999 book by Monica Natkowska.9

In March 1936, fifty Jewish students were injured, two seriously, because they elected to stand during class rather than to sit in what they considered to be the demeaning, left-sided ghetto benches. This episode led to the temporary closing of the whole University of Warsaw. Another 50 Jewish students were attacked the next month at the University of Kraków for the same reason. With the opening of a new school term in September 1937, there were further attacks at the University of Warsaw. As a result, and with the stated purpose of curbing the violence, university administrators across Poland gave in to the student majority. Ghetto benches for Jewish students were officially authorized.7

Many university professors did not agree with the official position. On May 4, 1939, four months before the German invasion of Poland, in protest against ghetto benches, these professors also stood during class—in solidarity with Jewish students.7 The protests accomplished nothing, but the problem of insufficient Jewish corpses was soon solved. Three million unclaimed bodies of Polish Jews were made available over the next several years.


  1. Davies N. Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1984.
  2. Abramitzky R, Halaburda H. Were Jews in interwar Poland more educated? 2014. http://works.bepress.com/halaburda/24/ Accessed Feb. 9, 2016.
  3. Jakobovits, I., 1958. The dissection of the dead in Jewish Law: a comparative and historical study. Tradition: J Orthodox Jewish Thought 1958;1:77-103.
  4. Sukol RB. Building on a tradition of ethical consideration of the dead. Hum Pathol 1995;26:700-705.
  5. Aleksiun N. Christian corpses for Christians! Dissecting the anti-semitism behind the cadaver affair of the second Polish Republic. East Eur Pol Soc 2011;25:393-409.
  6. Aleksiun N. Jewish students and Christian corpses in interwar Poland: playing with the language of blood libel. Jewish Hist 2012;26:327-42.
  7. Jewish Telegraphic Agency (http://www.jta.org/). Accessed Feb. 9, 2016
  8. Buklijas T. Cultures of death and politics of corpse supply: anatomy in Vienna, 1848-1914. Bull Hist Med 2008;82:570–607.
  9. Natkowska M. [Numerus clausus, ghetto benches, numerus nullus, “the Aryan paragraph:” Antisemitism at the University of Warsaw]. Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, 1999.

MARY SEEMAN is Professor Emerita, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto. She is an Officer in the Order of Canada.

Winter 2016



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