William Shippen (Body Snatching)

Since the founding of the Medical School, the study of anatomy was a central aspect of Penn’s curriculum. Dr. William Shippen, who co-founded the medical school with Dr. John Morgan was first accused of body-snatching in 1765 while serving as Professor of Anatomy at the medical school. At the time, Shippen was conducting lectures in anatomy in his father’s home on Arch street. In light of these accusations, Shippen took out an ad in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette:

“It has given Dr. Shippen much Pain to hear that notwithstanding all the Caution and Care he has taken to preserve the utmost Decency in opening and dissecting dead Bodies, which he has persevered in chiefly from the Motive of being useful to Mankind, some evil-minded Persons, either wantonly or maliciously, have reported to his Disadvantage that he has taken up some Persons who were buried in the Church Burying Ground, which has disturbed the Minds of some of his worthy Fellow Citizens. The Doctor with much Pleasure, improves this Opportunity to declare that the Report is absolutely false ; and to assure them that the Bodies he dissected were either of Persons who had wilfully murdered themselves or were publicly executed, except now and then one from the Potter's Field, whose Death was owing to some particular Disease ; and that he never had one Body from the Church.”

Despite Shippen’s ardent denial of stealing from any “private burying ground,”  his admission to snatching corpses from the “Potter’s Field” indicates the possibility that Shippen stole the corpses of enslaved or free African Americans for dissection in his anatomy lectures.  Furthermore, according to Shippen, people who committed suicide or were executed lost the right to maintain bodily integrity after death. This sentiment reflects the notion that early physicians did not believe that the sanctity of the human body was ubiquitous.

In fact, according to an 1891 piece by Westscott Thompson, Shippen’s first dissection at the new Penn Medical School was a black man who had committed suicide. Thompson wrote,

“Late in November 1762, Dr. Shippen received the first subject for dissection of which there is any record. A negro man having cut his throat with a glass bottle, from the effect of which he died, the action upon his case is thus recorded by the Gazette of December 2. 'After the coroner's jury had pronounced him guilty of self-murder, his body was immediately ordered by authority to Dr. Shippen's anatomical theatre,' this accession to the stock of the dissecting room must have been received a day or two after the opening lecture.”

It also must be noted that, despite Shippen’s claims, the public remained skeptical of his integrity. In subsequent generations, rumors of Shippen’s illicit procurement of bodies for dissection was widely-circulated among Philadelphians. According to a 1906 newspaper clipping, Shippen, “instructed his students in the ways of body-snatching” and the anatomy rooms at Penn were filled with bodies, as “no grave was safe against his predatory plans.”

Shippen’s dissections marked the debut of Penn’s famed anatomy department. In the years following Shippen’s tenure, which lasted until his death in 1808, prominent Penn faculty members began collecting human anatomical specimens to use for teaching purposes.

~ Carson Eckhard

See also Lindey Randall, Fall 2022 report, "Dr. William Shippen Jr.: Medicine and Grave-Robbing in 18th Century Philadelphia"