GRAVE ROBBERY, 1896
Recently a number of cases of grave robbery have come to light, notably those at Des Moines, Vinton and Kansas City.
The question of anatomical material is a perplexing and aggravating one to most, if not to all, medical schools and we
may as well be frank and honest about the matter and present the facts as they are. The average American citizen is a
reasonable being and his practical nature enables him to grasp the situation when it is truthfully presented to him.
First, then, why are graves robbed of their sacred contents? Is it for ghoulish amusement on the part of medical
students or for purposes of experiment?
We think these questions can be dismissed without discussion, as few are so illy informed as to believe that such are the
motives that inspire to this revolting species of crime.
Under existing circumstances and laws, grave robbery has become practically a necessity. The necessity demanding it is
neither a mean nor low one.
The sole purpose for which graves are robbed is the acquisition of that knowledge of the structure of the human body,
without which neither medicine nor surgery can be intelligently practiced and their inestimable results given to a
suffering race. Only by the careful dissection of the dead body can such knowledge be obtained. The motive then that
inspires to grave robbery is neither a base nor a mean one, but has in view the greatest good to the living generations
of earth. A live man is worth all the inanimate clay that can be brought together. If then the dissection of the dead may
prolong life and relieve suffering it must be done, cost what it may. It will be done. There is no question about it.
These then are the plain facts and as facts must be met and considered. Dead bodies must be provided in some way or
graves will continue to be robbed in the future just as they have been in the past. We do not say this in any sense to
justify grave robbing but from an intimate knowledge of the requirements of the case.
Further, it is to the best interests of all that this work be done. It is a work of necessity. All are then equally
interested in a proper solution of the problem.
There are only two points to be settled: First, how may the graves of our people be safe from desecration by medical
schools? And, second, how may medical schools be supplied with anatomical material without stealing it? It is absolutely
impossible to settle the one without the other, for the material will be obtained no matter how stringent the laws
A bill is now before the legislature, or soon will be, bearing upon the solution of these questions. We are not informed
as to its contents but presume that it is wisely drawn.
We believe that an abundant supply would be provided for all our state schools by turning over the dead from the
penitentiaries and poor houses. Upon this class the state has some claims and it is certainly better to use it for this
purpose than to furnish the material from our cemeteries.
It would be but proper and humane to exempt certain of the criminal and pauper class — those whose dead bodies are claimed
at death by immediate relatives, parents, children, brothers and sisters.
We trust that the present agitation of the question will be wisely met by the legislature now in session.
SOURCE: Iowa Medical Journal: Directory of Iowa Physicians
and Surgeons Vol. 1. No. 11. Pp. 574-75. The Kenyon Printing & Mfg. Co. Des Moines. February, 1896.
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, May of 2009