The Cholera epidemics that ravaged St. Louis in the 19th is a subject of surprising depth. Everything from the eccentricities of science in the 1800s to the intricacies of sewer infrastructure impacted the outcome of the epidemics. But few elements in any story, in my opinion, are as impactful as the human element. The story of any city is so much more than it’s built environment. The population of a city, and the unusual characters cities develop, really tell the story.
And there are few characters as strangely colorful as Dr. Joseph McDowell. In our most recent episodes, Necropolis, I described him as a real-life H.P. Lovecraft character, accused of behaviors that made him seem more bogeyman than “Man of Science.” Why does a Doctor and respected teacher need to wear an armored breastplate to protect from attacks? Who needs a live bear in place of a guard dog? And the bodies…why were students of sciences encouraged to steal the bodies of the recently deceased?
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. Dr. McDowell’s legacy is one of equal parts revulsion and reverence. At his worst, McDowell’s behaviors could seem disturbing in their criminality. At his best, however, McDowell left a legacy of learning and medical advancement. Was he a mere product of his time? Compared to his contemporaries, was Dr. McDowell unique?
When falling down a rabbit-hole as unusual as this, it helps to bring in the experts. Victoria Cosner Love, co-author of Missouri’s Mad Doctor McDowell, graciously answered a number of questions I had, and happily shed some light onto his personality and legacy.
Blinders Off: How did Dr. McDowell come to reside in St. Louis?
Victoria Cosner Love: He came west like many people seeking their fortune. However, he always had a plan to start a medical college. He had experience as a teacher in Kentucky and Ohio, and wanted to run his own show. He may also have been attracted by the rumors of the “dry caves” of the Hannibal area. He had bought what is known now as Mark Twain Cave to do body preservation experiments in, mostly on his daughter.
Blinders Off: The things most associated with Dr. McDowell are the creepy stuff (grave robbing, wearing an armored breastplate, etc.) But his legacy, to my understanding, is much more than just ghoulish eccentricity. Can you explain what his legacy in medicine/education is?
Victoria Cosner Love: Despite his eccentricities, of which there were a lot, he was a masterful teacher in anatomy who commanded his student’s adoration and blind devotion. In the 1840’s, McDowell worked tirelessly with the cholera patients. His college turned out excellent doctors and when the civil war began, McDowell sided with the Confederacy. He worked as a surgeon and some say he was the hospital inspector. Many of his students also joined the Confederacy as surgeons saving lives.
Blinders Off: Can you explain how Dr. McDowell came to be attached to local medical schools?
Victoria Cosner Love: In 1838, he opened Kemper College, located next to Chouteau’s Pond in St. Louis. By 1840, he has chartered a formal medical school. By 1848, he is building his unique medical college, Missouri Medical College or locally known as McDowell Medical College.
Blinders Off: One of the more unusual rumors about Dr. McDowell was his ownership of a bear. Is it true, and how did that come about?
Victoria Cosner Love: We do not know how it came about, but we do have verification that he owned a cinnamon bear which he unleashed on one of the mobs that approached his medical college. (different mob than in #7) Oddly enough, or not, he had a stuffed cinnamon bear in his museum collection when it was inventoried by the Union Army after it was seized.
Blinders Off: Prior to the 20th Century, there seems to be a stereotype about doctors and medical students being grave robbers. How prevalent was that practice in reality?
Victoria Cosner Love: We believe that it was a huge business. There were between 2 and 4 medical colleges in St. Louis in the 1840’s. With each college averaging two dozen students every six months or so, the demand had to be high. Some of McDowell’s students tell of adventures when “resurrecting” a cadaver with their beloved Dr. McDowell. McDowell learned his “resurrecting” skills from his Uncle in Kentucky and his mentor in Ohio. It was common and a necessary practice in the eyes of the physicians who were teaching anatomy, but to modern eyes and historic eyes, was a social no-no.
Blinders Off: It’s not uncommon nowadays for people to donate their bodies to science, post-mortem. What has changed since the late 1800s in that regard? Why is that so common now compared to then?
Victoria Cosner Love: It was illegal and immoral. First only criminals who were put to death by the state could be donated to medical colleges, then John Does and criminals. It is not until the early to mid-20th century that people start to view dissection and body donation as a choice rather than a punishment. It was forbidden by many religions and was the ultimate in desecration of their loved ones.
Blinders Off: One last creepy question: Is there any truth to rumors of McDowell stealing cadavers that were laid out in homes for funerals?
Victoria Cosner Love: There is one verified story where the girl of German descent had died of such an unusual disease, that McDowell wanted to procure her corpse. He did steal her from her home. This resulted in one of the mobs that tried to invade his medical school and also one of the best ghost stories that McDowell himself tells.
Blinders Off: In your opinion, what is the most important or most prevalent part of Dr. McDowell’s legacy in St. Louis?
Victoria Cosner Love: First it is so unusual for one man to be associated with so many macabre stories, and at least two major ghost stories. That was what drew us to him in the first place. The more we read and found documentation on, the more he became bigger than life. Mark Twain used him as a thinly veiled inspiration for Doc Robinson, the body snatcher, in his novel, Huckleberry Finn.
McDowell represents a time and place in St. Louis history when three medical schools were blossoming, (Kemper College eventually evolves into Washington University school of Medicine) and major advances in surgery and anatomy were made. This time and place has not been looked at much in academia, and not at all in public history, until this publication. We hope that someone looks at his medical contributions and career more closely in the future.
Special thanks goes to Victoria Cosner Love for helping us. Visit her website, www.cosner-and-shannon.com . Also, check out the website for Missouri’s Mad Doctor McDowell from Arcadia Publishing. Listen to our two part series “Necropolis” about the Victorian Mourning Society and era here.
See you soon!