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The Very Nerve of Harriet Cole

When they said that Harriet Cole was a bundle of nerves, they weren’t kidding. Of course, it was only after she had died and willed her body to the Hahnemann Medical College that they started to refer to Harriet that way. She had been a cleaning woman at the school until her death in 1888, and was probably never referred to at all by any of the famously aloof medical profession. But after the school’s most famous anatomy specialist, Professor Rufus Benjamin Weaver A. M., M. D., Sc. D., got his hands on her, she became the center of attention. She has remained so for more than a century. Dr. Weaver decided to make her the subject of the most ambitious anatomical project to date: to extract her entire nervous system intact, and mount it for display and education purposes.

Of course, anatomical experts and physicians from all over the United States (as well as Paris, Berlin, Heidelberg, and Vienna) told him it was impossible. But Weaver was a strong-minded Pennsylvanian, a Gettysburg native who had studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the Jefferson Medical College of Philadelphia, and was by then Hahnemann’s Professor of Anatomy. So he wasn’t about to let other people tell him what he couldn’t do with his own cadavers. So for five months, he toiled daily in the Hahnemann dissecting rooms, discarding flesh, muscle, tendon and bone, and leaving only the nerves, which he wrapped in gauze for protection. He then coated the strands of nerve fiber in white lead to preserve and strengthen them, and finally shellacked and mounted them in roughly human shape with hundreds of pins.

 

It’s in this form that you can now see Harriet Cole. She stands like a sentinel in front of the security gate to the Hahnemann University library in Philadelphia. There, on the first floor, just inside the main entrance, her two blue plaster eyes stare out from a translucent amber skull. Everything else is a map of the human nervous system, intact, and made up of the real thing: A delicate filament of real-life nerves, coated in paint.

It’s hard to appreciate just how big a deal this feat was. Dr. Weaver lent out Harriet’s nerves under the grandiose title of the Dissected and Mounted Human Cerebro-Spinal Nervous System, where it met with great acclaim as a learning tool and feat of dissection. In 1893 at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago, the exhibit was awarded a gold medal and blue ribbon which now occupy the glass display case where Harriet’s nerves stand. Life Magazine and Time Magazine also published accolades about her. And after about 80 years of wear and tear, she was lovingly repaired and remounted.

If you’re in the mood to map out the nervous system for yourself, visit the Hahnemann University Hospital, part of Drexel University in Philadelphia, a few blocks north of City Hall. The library is just inside the main entrance at 245 N 15th Street, near Vine Street.

You can read about all of Pennsylvania’s Roadside Oddities and other curious attractions if Weird Pennsylvania.

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