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Grave robbing was common practice for early RI medical school

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While Moline became the home of John Deere in 1848, Rock Island made its mark that year with the opening of a medical school, the first of its kind in western Illinois. However, it did not last long, and it employed the usual gruesome practices of the day.

The Rock Island Medical College opened its doors in fall 1848, and, during its brief tenure in the area, the college trained several dozen students for careers in medicine. The instability of the school, however, proved its downfall, and it never stayed in one place for long.

The charter for the school was obtained in Wisconsin, though the college operated in Illinois. The college consisted of eight faculty members, and 21 students graduated in its first year of operation.

For one faculty member, teaching at a medical school was no big deal. Calvin Goudy, who was appointed a professor in the college’s first year, lectured to some 80 chemistry students that winter, to considerable acclaim. Though he had earned a medical degree only four years before, another professor lauded his “high reputation as a ripe scholar and accomplished physician.”

While living in Jacksonville in 1837, Dr. Goudy and a brother began publishing The Common School Advocate, said to be the first journal created strictly for education in the “Old Northwest,” as the area was known. On Nov. 8, 1838, he was a passenger on the first steam train in the state of Illinois, taking a bumpy ride on the Northern Cross line near Meredosia in Morgan County.

After earning his medical degree in 1844, Dr. Goudy moved to Taylorville, where, according to one account, he survived “a narrow escape from a pack of hungry wolves that pursued him at night across the prairie.”


He was elected to the Illinois House in 1856 and helped spearhead a bill to establish a State Normal School, which was founded in 1857 and is now known as Illinois State University. Dr. Goudy later served for 16 years on the state board of education.

While faculty members like Dr. Goudy brought dignity to the Rock Island Medical College, a common practice of the time makes stomachs turn today. There was no legal way for medical schools to obtain corpses for study, so most resorted to grave robbing to fill the need. In many cases, the students themselves did the dirty work, as did those at the Rock Island school.

Decades later, one elderly area woman described the body snatching done by the school.

“The students used to steal lots of bodies for dissection,” she recalled. “One time, the students robbed a grave and took the body to the old mill, and some (local) boys stole the body from the old mill and hid it in …the old shoemaker’s shop,” which was located in a cave along the Mississippi.  Later, the local youths reburied the unfortunate soul somewhere in Moline.

Some medical colleges bought cadavers on the black market. In 1877, the body of John Scott Harrison, the son of President William Henry Harrison and father of President Benjamin Harrison, was swiped by grave robbers and sold to a medical school in Cincinnati.

This macabre practice was not a factor in the demise of the medical school in Rock Island. After only one year, it moved to Davenport, where it was renamed the College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Upper Mississippi. River.

Though its name was long, the school's stay in Davenport was short, as it moved again in 1850 to Keokuk, where it was affiliated for a time with the University of Iowa. The college also kept stealing bodies in Keokuk, resulting in several public scandals.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or


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