The Nervous System of Harriet Cole – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - Atlas Obscura
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The Nervous System of Harriet Cole

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

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Harriet Cole was a woman who worked as part of the custodial staff at Hahnemann Medical College in the 1880s. After she died from tuberculosis at age 35, Dr. Rufus B. Weaver, a professor of anatomy, carefully extracted her entire nervous system.

Cole apparently gave permission for her body to be used by Weaver for the advancement of science, although an article from the archives department at Drexel University (whose medical school was formerly Hahnemann Medical College) notes that “it’s possible that there was some opportunism at work on Weaver’s part.” It should be noted that Cole was Black, which raises questions of whether race influenced how consent may have been handled at the time. Whether Cole knew precisely what would become of her—or, more precisely, her nervous system—is uncertain.

Over the course of five months in 1888, Weaver cut away Cole’s flesh to reveal and remove her cerebrospinal nervous system. The nerves were first wrapped in gauze for protection, and then every single strand was covered with a white, lead-based paint and shellacked. Weaver 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, Weaver told a fellow doctor about Cole during a trip to Europe after his extraction of the nervous system. 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.” Weaver replied quietly: “So it has, by some one in the States.” The poor British doctor must have been frightfully irked.

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

Weaver said he intended for Cole’s nervous system to serve as an educational tool at the medical college, a destiny it certainly fulfilled. But it also found a far wider audience when Weaver took the display to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. It received an exhibition medal and the blue-ribbon Premium Scientific Award.

Unfortunately, little is known about Harriet Cole herself. But her nervous system remains famous today, with images appearing in hundreds of textbooks, laboratories, and medical offices across the United States and beyond. Cole’s system has undergone some restoration over the years, most notably by the Hahnemann-educated 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, enclosed in a glass case and guarding the entrance to the bookstore in the Student Activities Center.

Know Before You Go

If you'd like to visit the nervous system, you will need to have an appointment with a staff or faculty member, or attend an event where the university opens its collection to the public.