In the first years after the American Revolution, New York City had just one medical school, housed in the newly renamed Columbia College, formerly King’s College. A prior degree wasn’t required of medical students. Some were as young as 15.
To acquire cadavers for their anatomy classes, students regularly excavated the paupers’ graveyard and the “Negroes Burying Ground,” the site of our modern African Burial Ground National Monument. Because modern embalming techniques were unknown, students started digging as soon as the sun went down after a funeral. The practice was so open and notorious that in February 1788, a group of free blacks submitted a petition to the city’s Common Council, complaining that “young gentlemen in this city who call themselves students of the physic” engaged “in the most wanton sallies of graves.” They asked the city to “adopt such measure as may seem meet to prevent similar abuses in the future.”
The council ignored the petition.