Charles F. Wiesenthal, a former physician to Frederick the Great of Prussia, founded the first medical school in Maryland. He had arrived in Baltimore in 1755, at a time before there were any well established medical schools in the American colonies. Since only a few colonists could afford to attend European medical schools, the customary medical education in America was based on students’ being apprenticed to established physicians. Wiesenthal was soon instructing both physicians and apprentices in Baltimore, and by 1769 he had erected a laboratory, a small but apparently permanent building, two stories in height and with brick walls, behind his house on Gay Street. The building was used for lectures and for dissection as part of the instruction in anatomy.1

In both America and in Europe, public outcries, based on fear and superstition, occurred periodically during the eighteenth century over human dissections. Baltimore was no exception. Late in December 1788, as a dissection was in progress, Wiesenthal’s laboratory was stormed by a mob that damaged the interior fittings and carried the corpse through the city.2

Meanwhile, Wiesenthal had been urging physicians throughout the state to organize. In mid-December 1788 the Medical Society of Baltimore was organized, and an initial plan was laid out for a statewide society, which was incorporated a decade later, in January 1799, as the Medical and Chirurgical Society of Maryland. Dr. Andrew Wiesenthal, Charles’s son, had inherited his father’s school and with George Buchanan, who was also offering medical courses in Baltimore, attempted unsuccessfully to interest the medical society in sponsoring a formal medical school.3

At about the same time, around 1797, Dr. John Davidge, an Annapolis-born physician who had been trained at Edinburgh and Glasgow, settled in Baltimore and over the next few years offered lectures on midwifery, anatomy, physiology, and surgery. Dr. Davidge was soon joined by two men who were also enthusiastic about establishing a new medical school — Dr. James Cocke, a native of Virginia who had settled in Baltimore in 1804 after having studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital in London and at the University of Pennsylvania, and John Shaw, who had studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and in Edinburgh and served as a U.S. Navy medical official in Algiers before moving to Baltimore in 1807.4

These three men shared common concerns about medical education. In the fall of 1807 they advertised their new plans for medical instruction in the Baltimore press. In October 1807 the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Advertiser carried the following announcement, which explained how they had organized respective responsibilities:

Medical Lectures

A course of Lectures on Anatomy and Surgery, with a few discourses on the elements of Midwifery, will be given this season by J.B. Davidge; and

A course on Chymistry, by J. Shaw.

The course on Anatomy will be rendered more full and complete, by a series of prelections, on the functions of some of the most important organs of the body by J. Cocke.

The above lectures will commence on the first Monday in November next.5

The lectures on anatomy were to be held in a small anatomical theater that Dr. Davidge had constructed for that specific purpose and at his own expense at the southeast corner of Saratoga and Liberty streets. The first class was conducted in mid-November. Within a few days, however, a crowd broke into the building, seized the cadaver (the waterlogged body of a criminal who had drowned himself), and dragged it through the streets. Baltimore magistrates were slow to put down the uprising, but this disturbance propelled the Maryland General Assembly into passing a bill to incorporate a state medical college. Coincidentally, the bill had been introduced on the same day as the riot.6

Two letters to the editor, published in Baltimore newspapers within the next week and defended the need for instruction in dissection. They also provide important contemporary descriptions of Davidge’s anatomical theater, which was an antecedent to the present Davidge Hall.

The first letter was published in the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser and signed “Celsus,” in reference to a famous anatomist and author in antiquity. The author described Davidge’s anatomical house as “a small building,” which “had lately been constructed by one of our most respectable and public spirited physicians” and was “calculated to accommodate him in giving a course on instructions on Anatomy, for which he felt himself eminently qualified.” The site, according to the writer, “appeared to have been happily selected – it was on no public street” and “it had been built in such a way as to prevent the possibility of any person being offended by objects capable of exciting disgust.” Furthermore, the occupants had conducted their work in a highly professional manner: “no person has pretended to charge those who have frequented the house, with the slightest misconduct in the management of their affairs, nor had the neighborhood been in any degree annoyed by the anatomical house.” However, according to Celsus, it was “several worthless persons, the tenants or owners of some small houses in the neighborhood, together with other idle and mischievous people” who had started the rioting. These rowdies “surrounded the building” and then “climbed upon the roof of it . . . threw stones & brickbats at the glass dome, dashed in the sashes.” As they were “rendered strong and courageous” by a gathering crowd, they “proceeded to break open the door, threw down the partition,” and lay hold of the cadaver.7

The second letter writer was signed “J.C.” and probably was Dr. James Cocke. He noted that he had “been intimately concerned in the business of the anatomical room,” and his comments on the riot confirm many of the details of the building. Apparently its roof was flat or had only a low pitch, for he mentioned being disturbed by “boys climbing on the roof of the house” and was later astonished to see “the face of a female who had ascended to the top of the house.” This writer also referred to the dome: the woman on the roof, he wrote, had been “endeavoring to look through the glass of the dome,” and he confirmed that “the sashes of the skylight were forced out.” Interestingly, he described the dissecting space as a “room without side-lights.” This writer also refered to the “anatomical room” as being within the building, thus suggesting that there was more than one space within the structure.8

It thus seems that Dr. Davidge’s anatomical house was only one story high (since access to the roof must have been fairly easy) and had glass in the dome and solid walls. The dissecting table was directly under the dome. Also in the room was a “prepared skeleton,” which had “bones which had been several years dried” and “put together by art.” Later accounts stated that the crowd demolished Davidge’s theater, but contemporary accounts do not make this statement.9