Harriet Cole’s body was donated to science for unknown reasons, but her contribution to the advancement of medical science in the 19th and 20th centuries will never be forgotten. Cole’s understanding of the human nervous system, on the other hand, would almost certainly be different.
In the 1880s, Cole worked as a cleaner at Philadelphia’s Homeopathic Hahnemann Medical College (now part of Drexel University). She swept the laboratory and classroom floors and emptied wastebaskets. Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, a native of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was a professor of anatomy in one of those classrooms.
Weaver joined Hahnemann in 1879 as a Demonstrator and Lecturer of Anatomy, which was still a relatively new field of study at the time. Weaver dissected cadavers with his students as part of his job. Medical schools at the time typically received cadavers from prisons, asylums, and poor houses. The practice of donating one’s body was relatively unknown.
However, history suggests that Weaver and his lectures had an impact on Cole because she donated her body to Weaver for anatomical study before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 35 in 1888. In the same year, Weaver took Cole’s body and began work on a medical first: the first complete dissection of the human nervous system. Weaver spent about five months painstakingly extracting every nerve from Cole’s body before arranging them for study.
He began by removing the flesh to reveal the nerves, then wrapping each nerve in gauze and painting it with lead-based paint. After that, he put the entire nervous system on display.
Weaver’s attention to detail, according to Past Medical History, was exceptional.
“The dura mater was preserved by chipping away at the base of the skull piece by piece, the cranial nerves were separated out with fine needles, and even the eyes were left attached.” Each nerve was first wrapped in moist gauze for protection before being painted with lead-based paint to ensure long-term preservation. The tiny strand-like filaments of the intercostal nerves that sit between the ribs were the only nerves he couldn’t successfully dissect. The fully dissected nervous system was then suspended from a blackboard using thousands of pins. “Dr. Weaver affectionately referred to his achievement as ‘Harriet,’” according to the Past Medical History report.
Cole’s nervous system was only supposed to be used in classrooms as a teaching tool. However, word of Weaver’s work spread around the world, and by 1893, the anatomist had submitted his work to the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he received the Premium Scientific Award.
Only three times since 1888 has Weaver’s work been replicated without the use of chemicals to separate the tissues. Cole’s nervous system has also been featured in a number of textbooks, laboratories, and medical offices around the world. Cole’s nervous system returned to Drexel University in the 1960s after spending many years in various laboratories and classrooms across the country.
Although the African-American woman is no longer used in the classroom, she still stands proudly within a glass case at the University bookshop’s entrance, greeting students.