The Anatomical Theatre

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Medical Students in Front of the Anatomical Theatre

The Anatomical Theatre was designed by Thomas Jefferson and erected on the grounds of the University of Virginia in 1825–1826. It was used for anatomy instruction and the storage of cadavers. Inspired by Renaissance architecture and the work of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jefferson designed a square, three-story building that housed a skylit, octagonal surgical theater on the top floor. The Anatomical Theatre opened for classes in 1827. The building fell into disuse after the opening of the University of Virginia Hospital in 1901 and briefly served as home to the School of Rural Economics. It was razed in 1939 to improve views of the new Alderman Library. It is the only Jefferson-designed building at the university to have been torn down.

Origins and Early Years

When the University of Virginia was founded, Thomas Jefferson was dedicated to creating a curriculum that contained clinical and surgical training. Robley Dunglison was hired in 1825 as a professor of medicine and anatomy, a key part of this goal. Dunglison and his family lived in Pavilion X which was also meant to be Dunglison's lecture space. The pavilion, however, was not an adequate location for dissecting cadavers. To solve this problem, Dunglison asked for an anatomical theatre, which Jefferson designed himself. The theatre was the first addition to the Academical Village. The plan was approved by the Board of Visitors on March 4, 1825[1]

The theatre was going to be west of Pavilion I. It was to be perfectly square with 40-foot sides and two levels and a basement. The top floor would be used for anatomical lectures. It would have a sky light for better lighting. The walls would have half-moon windows to discourage outside viewers. The the middle floor would be a museum to display medical specimens. The basement would have storage and would be used to prepare cadavers for lectures. Jefferson's design was inspired by Renaissance anatomical theatres when anatomy was introduced as a curriculum. When jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the theatre had not finished construction. In 1827, the anatomical theatre opened in time for the third session of the university. It was not just used for anatomical lectures but served as a location for office hours, giving vaccinations to students, and a location for surgeries.[1]

In many of his lectures, Robley Dunglison used black cadavers. He used them to lecture on the differences between black and white bodies. These demonstrations argued for the inferiority of black people to white people. These teachings were foundational in the study of eugenics which connected science to race.[2]

Body Snatching

In the 1830s, professors and students had trouble procuring bodies for classes and demonstrations in the Anatomical Theatre. Dissecting dead bodies for medical use was seen as immoral and frowned upon in this period. To solve this problem, professors and most of the times students resorted to body snatching. Students tasked with finding dead bodies typically targeted black people and criminals.[3] Many of the cadavers that were used for demonstrations were enslaved people that had labored at UVA and had been buried in Charlottesville. But professors also turned to Richmond and Petersberg.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Web. Anatomical Theatre, Encyclopedia Virginia, retrieved July 11, 2024.
  2. Web. Robley Dunglison (1798–1869), Encyclopedia Virginia, retrieved June 10, 2024.
  3. Web. “Subjects” for Anatomy Class, University of Virginia Health System, retrieved July 18, 2024.

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