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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Nerve of Harriet Cole

The meticulously extracted nervous system of a 19th-century cleaning lady who donated her body to science.  

Harriet Cole was an African-American woman who worked as a cleaning lady at Hahnemann Medical College in the 1880s. When she died from tuberculosis at age 35, Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, the resident professor of anatomy, painstakingly extracted her entire nervous system over the course of five months.

While this sounds like some kind of Dr. Frankenstein-like abuse of medical authority, Harriet Cole did apparently give permission for her body to be used by Dr. Weaver for the furtherance of science. Whether she knew precisely what would become of her, or more precisely her nervous system, is uncertain.

Over the course of five months in 1888, Dr. Weaver cut away Harriet’s flesh to reveal, isolate and remove her cerebrospinal nervous system, a medical first that has only been repeated three times without using chemicals to separate the tissues. The nerves were first wrapped in gauze for protection, and then every single strand was covered with a white lead-based paint and shellacked. Dr. Weaver then mounted the entire system for display, the nerves arranged in the shape of the human body.

According to the History of the Homoeopathic Medical College of Pennsylvania, Dr. Weaver told a fellow doctor about Harriet during a trip to the U.K., after his extraction of the nervous system. He didn’t mention the completion of the dissection. The doctor’s response: “It is impossible, there is no such thing in all this United Kingdom, and if it had been possible it would have been done by some one.” Dr. Weaver replied quietly: “So it has, by some one in the States.” The poor English doctor must have been frightfully irked.

In an article for Homeopathic World in August 1892, Dr. Alfred Heath was far more generous about Dr. Weaver’s accomplishment. He called it “a marvel of patience and skill in dissection, the likes of which has never been seen before.”

The nervous system was meant to serve as an educational tool at the medical college, a destiny it certainly fulfilled. But it also found a far wider audience. People were so impressed by Harriet’s nervous system that it was taken to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where it received an exhibition medal and the blue-ribbon Premium Scientific Award.

Images of the nervous system have appeared in hundreds of textbooks, laboratories and medical offices across the U.S.A. and beyond, and the college still receives photo requests to this day. “Harriet” has undergone some restoration over the years, most notably by the Hahnemann-trained cardiologist Dr. George Geckeler in the 1960s. And today her nervous system stands in all its surreal glory inside the Drexel University College of Medicine (successor to Hahnemann Medical College), enclosed in a glass case and guarding the entrance to the bookstore in the Student Activities Center.