Irish Surgeon Becomes America’s Leading Body Snatcher

Irish Surgeon Becomes America’s Leading Body Snatcher

DUBLIN DAILY INDEPENDENT, APRIL 1752. A 40-year-old man was taken to Saint Steevens's Hospital today after being thrown by a horse and, upon landing, hitting his head on a wall 18 days ago. Dr. Samuel Clossy, who studied at Edinburgh University under the renowned surgeon William Hunter, decided to cut a hole into the man's skull to expose the brain. Clossy said that as soon as he drilled the hole "matter began flowing out. In the evening the man awakened and the matter being all discharged in a few days, he recovered both his understanding and motion."
Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, by Hieronymus Bosch, depicting the medical procedure of drilling a hole in a person’s skull to release fluid and other matter. Inset shows a trepanned skull.

The story might sound like fiction, but it actually happened. The surgeon, Samuel Clossy, would go on to become a leading surgeon in New York City.

Born in Dublin in 1724, Clossy emigrated to New York in 1763 and became two years later the first professor of anatomy at King’s College, now Columbia University. He had written a classic anatomy text while in Ireland called Observations on some of the Diseases of the Parts of the Human Body: Chiefly taken from the Dissections of Morbid Bodies.

Morbid bodies indeed.

And where did those morbid bodies come from, oh, great Dr. Clossy? Why, from recently deceased individuals whose remains were unceremoniously and illegally dug from their graves and transported at night, undercover, to your anatomy lab.

That Little Ol’ Body Snatcher, Me

Samuel Clossy

Clossy had been using bodies snatched from graves throughout his schooling in Scotland and his medical practice in Ireland. That’s how physicians at the time secured bodies for teaching anatomy, by stealing bodies themselves or having others steal them. Clossy almost certainly stole bodies himself as a student and later most likely hired others to do the dirty work.

Clossy specialized in gynecology and, not long after he arrived in New York, gave his first anatomy lectures and dissections. The first two dissections were performed on females, one Black and one White. Clossy had aimed to do a third dissection but ran into, um, an issue. “We could not venture to meddle with a white subject,” he said, “and a black or Mulatto I could not procure.”

Most of the bodies obtained for dissection in New York City during and after the Revolutionary War came from either the potter’s field or the Negroes Burial Ground. The two graveyards were opposite one another on Chambers Street near Broadway, within three blocks of New York Hospital. How handy.

Clossy Came, Clossy Went

Clossy didn’t stay long in New York after the war. He was a confirmed Loyalist and didn’t back down from his beliefs when the British lost.

Francis R. Packard wrote about Clossy in his voluminous History of Medicine in the United States, published in 1901. Packard was a highly esteemed Philadelphia oncologist who had studied under one of the most venerated physicians in history, Sir William Osler. Packard said that Clossy’s “political opinions rendered him obnoxious to the patriots, and he returned to his native land after a few years’ sojourn in this country.”

Clossy would not live to witness the anger and violence of the Doctor’s Riot of 1788, a riot prompted by the practice of body snatching. Clossy’s declining health and continued Loyalist leanings prompted him to return to Dublin, where he died at about age 62 on August 22, 1786.

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