Historical Photo: June 16, 1939, Date of Demolition Atcheson Laughlin Hench
The Anatomical Theater, designed by Jefferson in 1825 and built within a year, is the only Jefferson-designed building on Grounds to be torn down.
When UVA’s first professor of anatomy and surgery Dr. Robley Dunglison arrived on Grounds and moved into Pavilion X—where he was expected to teach classes on the first floor and reside on the second floor—he refused to perform cadaver dissections in the first floor front room, in a space right above the cook’s kitchen and an enslaved living space in the basement, says UVA history professor and associate dean for the College of Arts & Sciences Kirt von Daacke (Col ’97). In response, Jefferson designed the anatomical theater, complete with a tiered observation amphitheater to afford medical students a good view of the demonstrations.
By the 1840s, the medical school student body had grown, and so had the demand for corpses: von Daacke estimates that the school needed between 25 and 50 bodies (or more) each year for dissections. Anatomical demonstrations on very recently deceased—and usually not embalmed—corpses was common in American medical schools at the time, so the bodies used were almost always stolen from nearby graves, von Daacke says. “The grave-robbing was almost entirely from gravesites of free people of color or enslaved graveyards. So, the vast majority of the bodies dissected in the anatomical theater at least through the 1880s were certainly African Americans,” he says.
While grave-robbing was technically illegal at the time, von Daacke says that the law was not enforced, and no one seemed particularly concerned about robbing the graves of black bodies. Other bodies were brought in from all over the state, or sneakily taken from local gravesites in the night, according to Philip Alexander Bruce’s History of the University of Virginia, 1819–1919.
By the early 1930s, dissections had moved from the Anatomical Theater to a newer building in the medical complex. The Anatomical Theater was demolished in 1939, not long after Alderman Library opened just behind it, but the hall’s bricks were salvaged and used to repair the serpentine walls and other original Jeffersonian buildings.