8.19.2014

The Resurrectionist, by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist
Medicine, until very recently, was very medieval. There were no ethical boards and the hunt for cadavers lead to a case of serial murders so notorious that people still know the names Burke and Hare. Matters were no different in the American south, except that medical colleges often used deceased slaves in their anatomy courses and experimented on the living in "charity" hospitals. Matthew Guinn's The Resurrectionist tells the story of what happens at one (fictional) medical college in Columbia, South Carolina, when workers find the remains of dozens of bodies buried beneath the administration building. In one thread of the novel, Dr. Jacob Thacker is serving out his probation after being caught stealing and using Xanax in the public relations office at South Carolina Medical College. In the other, Nemo Johnston—who is owned by the university—works as their resurrection man by procuring bodies for the anatomy courses. Guinn switches back and forth between the two as Thacker follows the historical trail to find out who is buried in the basement.

The head of the College, Dr. Frederick Johnston, decides to solve the school's cadaver deficit by purchasing a slave to be their resurrectionist. He discovers Cudjo at the plantation of a man with a gangrenous toe and brokers a deal while his patient is woozy with laudanum. Cudjo decides to rename himself Nemo, after the doctor tells him his name is too African. The doctor pays Cudjo well, even buying him a house, in exchange for keeping silent about the college's dirty business. A few years later, Nemo is teaching anatomy—much to the dismay of the white students. Guinn is not shy about showing just how vicious whites were towards the blacks. Nemo is not a man to take it lying down. Due to his position, he has much more latitude to register his feelings towards the whites. His story is so interesting that I wish that the entirety of The Resurrectionist was about him.

In the present, Jacob is given the task of keeping the discovery of the bodies quiet. His boss holds his probation over Jacob's head. All Jacob has to do is keep his nose clean for another year and he can go back to practicing medicine. But there are enough people around him that won't let him cover things up. An archaeologist arrives to document the site. Then a local minister and black community leader shows up and announces that they will hold a demonstration. As he must, Jacob gives in to the pangs of conscious and does the right thing.

The inspiration for The Resurrectionist comes, in part, from the 1910 Flexner Report. The report began as an attempt to stop colleges from turning out so many poorly trained doctors. In the end, it exposed reprehensible acts of malpractice and unethical and illegal behavior. (According to Jacob, it still makes for a gripping read.)

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