CU Medical School cadavers buried in Columbia Cemetery

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, October 11, 2009)

In 1883, when the University of Colorado’s medical school opened in Boulder, there were three faculty members and only two students. Tuition was a one-time fee of five dollars for in-state students and ten dollars for those from out-of-state. In order to graduate, each student had to dissect a human body.

Most of the cadavers were bodies of indigent men and women who had no one to pay for their funerals. Even so, their cut-up remains were respectfully laid to rest in unmarked graves.

The whereabouts of the remains of the first dissected bodies are unknown. By 1890, however, CU had a handful of medical students and they were enough to warrant the University’s purchase of the first of three plots in Columbia Cemetery, at 9th and Pleasant streets in Boulder.

One of the these bodies was that of miner Frederick Nelson. He had smothered in a mine shaft near the town of Sunset while seeking refuge from a forest fire. His relatives were unknown. No one except the inquiring college students claimed his remains.

Many of the cadavers, like Nelson’s, had met unusual or even violent deaths. According to the coroner’s records of the time, another was the body of Herman Schmidt. In 1909, a falling rock crushed his skull while he worked as a laborer on the construction of Barker Dam, below Nederland. Schmidt had been a recent immigrant and had no known family or friends.

Nothing about Michael Clifford was known at the time of his death except his name. He was murdered in a drunken brawl in the town of Marshall. CU welcomed his body, as well.

Only a few of the bodies used in the classroom were female. When an insane woman named Ellen Deardorff died in 1914, her husband Cyrus Deardorff donated her body to the University. Destitute in his dying days, Cyrus arranged for the University to take his body as well, thus saving both his wife and himself the stigmas of being consigned to paupers’ graves.

Other indigents included Everett Bradstreet, A.B. Hendrickson, and John Nolan, all who died at the county poor farm on 12th Street (now Broadway) where they had lived at the county’s expense before ending up on the dissecting table.

1914 was a busy year for Boulder’s medical students. CU purchased its second cemetery plot, with a third a couple of years later. Additional bodies came from people who had committed suicide or died from influenza or other infectious diseases. Some, like Thomas McCormick, came directly from the county jail where the former inmate died from an overdose of morphine.

In January 1921, a Camera headline read, “Cutting Varsity Lake to refrigerate the stiffs.” At the time, six-inch-thick blocks of ice were stored on campus to keep cool a ready supply of cadavers. Three years later, citing a lack of appropriate medical facilities, the CU Medical School moved to Denver where it remains today.

Without gravestones, many of the names of the men and women whose bodies were given to medical science have faded into the past, but their remains are still there for anyone who cares to remember.

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