The mystery of Harriet Cole, who donated her body to science and became a medical icon

Mildred Europa Taylor September 28, 2021
Dr. Rufus B. Weaver next to the reconstructed nervous system of Harriet Cole --- Drexel University Archives

It is not known why Harriet Cole donated her body to science, but the contribution she made toward the advancement of medical science in the 19th-20th centuries will never be forgotten. But for Cole, the understanding of the human nervous system would probably not have been the same.

Cole was a cleaner at Philadelphia’s Homeopathic Hahnemann Medical College (part of Drexel University today) in the 1880s. She emptied wastebaskets and swept laboratory and classroom floors. One of those classrooms belonged to a professor of anatomy named Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, who was a native of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Weaver came to Hahnemann in 1879 to work as a Demonstrator and Lecturer of Anatomy, which was then more or less a new field of study. Weaver, as part of his job, dissected cadavers with his students. At the time, medical schools usually received cadavers from prisons, asylums, and poor houses. Body donation was relatively unknown.

But history says that Weaver and his lectures might have had a significant impact on Cole because before her death from tuberculosis at age 35 in 1888, she donated her body to Weaver to be used for anatomical study. Weaver in that same year took Cole’s body and started work on what would be a medical first — the first full dissection of the human nervous system. Weaver, for about five months, worked diligently to carefully extract every nerve from Cole’s corpse before arranging them to be studied.

He first started by cutting away the flesh to reveal the nerves before wrapping each individual nerve in gauze then coating it in lead-based paint. He subsequently mounted the entire nervous system in a display.

According to a report by Past Medical History, Weaver’s attention to detail was remarkable.

“The base of the skull was chipped away piece-by-piece, maintaining the integrity of the dura mater, the cranial nerves were separated out using fine needles, and even the eyes were left attached. Initially, each nerve was wrapped in moist gauze for protection, before being covered in a lead-based paint for long-term preservation. The only nerves that he was unable to dissect out successfully were the tiny strand-like filaments of the intercostal nerves that sit between the ribs. Thousands of pins were then used to suspend the fully dissected nervous system from a blackboard. Dr Weaver affectionately referred to his achievement as simply ‘Harriet’,” the report by Past Medical History said.

Cole’s nervous system was only to be used as an educational tool for students in classrooms. But people across the world became aware of Weaver’s work and by 1893, the anatomist had submitted his work to the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he was awarded the Premium Scientific Award.

Since 1888, Weaver’s work has only been repeated three times without using chemicals to separate the tissues. Images of Cole’s nervous system have also appeared in several textbooks, laboratories and medical offices across the world. After spending many years moving to various laboratories and classrooms across the country, Cole’s nervous system finally came back home to Drexel University in the 1960s.

Today, the African-American woman is no longer used in the classroom, but she still stands proudly within a glass case welcoming students at the entrance of the University bookshop.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 28, 2021


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