Stiffs, Skulls and Skeletons – Over 400 medical portraits taken in the 1800s and early 1900s

Dr. Stanley Burns has collected over 1-million medical photographs from the 1800s and early 1900s, when posing for a professional portrait in the style of a painting was trendy.

For a doctor or surgeon, this meant posing stiffly and solemnly with bones, cadavers, and medical tools. But the earnestness didn't always come without a sense of morbid humor, as shown in photos like the 1890 "Group Portrait" of three sitting cadavers (two in chairs) holding hands with a group of men who act as if nothing is out of the ordinary. If a medical student today posed humorously with a dead body, it might be judged as inappropriate, but that doesn't seem to have been the case over 100 years ago.

Not all of these early photographs include medical professionals. Some only portray X-rays, skeletons or bones, many that tell a fragment of a story, like the skull with a hammer sticking out of it titled, "Harvey Morgan – killed by Indians – 1870," or the skull with a puzzle-piece hole in its side titled, "Bull Run Battle Field Find, Perforation of the Cranium by a Musket Ball." Although most of the photos in this book are easy enough to digest, I had a squeamish time with the photos of living patients who had rare conditions, such as the skinny 15-year-old boy missing both clavicles (1907) and the naked, unhappy-looking "Hemi Man" (1907) with "multiple congenital deformities." Originally shot for others in the medical field to view and study, the over-400 photographs in this book, written by Dr. Burns and his daughter Elizabeth, weren't meant for the layperson and have never been published until now.

Stiffs, Skulls & Skeletons: Medical Photography and Symbolism

See sample pages from this book at Wink.