Friday, October 28, 2016

The flesh and bones of Dr. John Collins Warren

A CRANIAL COLLECTION: Warren with memento mori, circa 1846

Dr. John Collins Warren (1778-1856), renowned surgeon and co-founder of the MGH, is buried at tranquil Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, but he also is sequestered in a closed, coffin-like box in storage at Harvard’s Warren Museum. How can that be possible? The disposition of his body was unclear for many years, but recent research has unearthed the facts.

Warren left precise instructions in a letter to his son about what should be done with his “mortal remains after the spirit has quitted them.” He wanted his body taken to Harvard Medical School (where he taught for 38 years) to be “examined or dissected [and] any morbid parts ... carefully preserved.”  He further instructed that his bones were to be “whitened, articulated, and placed in the lecture room of the Medical College, near [his] bust” as “a lesson useful ... to morality and science.” Warren’s skeleton is indeed at Harvard in the anatomical museum that he founded, but his descendants allow the box to be opened only for family members. Dominic Hall, curator of the Warren Anatomical Museum, explains that the historical files have no records of how this came to be, but it is a tradition the museum still honors.

A marker in the Warren family plot at Forest Hills bears the name “Johannes Collins Warren,” but it was incorrectly assumed by most observers (aware that his skeleton was at Harvard) that the name was merely there as a token of remembrance. My own high school Latin was not equal to the task of translating the inscription on the Warren stone (Animae vestis carnea hoc tumulo conditur), but I now know (with the help of a classicist) that it means: “The fleshy clothing of the soul is buried in this grave.”

Warren bought the plot in 1852 and pre-arranged for several long-deceased family members buried elsewhere to be exhumed and re-interred in a newly constructed underground vault beside his own morbid parts. The shuffle occurred in August 1856. All of the remains now in the vault are contained in urns – the older ones because they were “repackaged” after decades of moldering in the ground; and Warren’s because the dissection and subdivision of his body made the parts destined for Forest Hills amorphous and compact.

Medical historians and other admirers of the famous surgeon can now locate his “mortal remains” to pay their respects, but one mystery remains: Who determined that his skeleton should remain out of public view?

—Jeff Mifflin, MGH archivist 

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