Graveyard Shift
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All The Gruesome Ways Scientists Removed Skeletons From Human Bodies

Updated March 6, 2019 23.6k views11 items

The history of skeleton extraction is not for the faint of heart. While most skeletons used in medical research today are plastic, just a few centuries ago medical students were working with actual human skeletons. Where did these skeletons come from? Techniques for skeleton removal varied and bodies were sometimes obtained via some sort of sketchy means. Whichever method was used, the process was always generally macabre. 

How scientists removed skeletons from bodies varied depending on the time period, as well as a scientist's own personal preference. Chemical substances or boiling water were used to strip down the corpse, and any excess flesh was removed. While most skeletons were used in medical research, some were put on display for public amusement or education. Regardless of how the skeletons were used, the work of stripping away the flesh was a grisly task. 

  • In Centuries Past, Medical Students Studied On Actual Human Skeletons

    The vast majority of skeletons medical students use now to study anatomy are made of plastic or a similar material. However, a couple of centuries ago, medical students frequently studied on actual human skeletons. Skeletons were created in a variety of ways and distributed to universities, and occasionally private collectors, for medical and other purposes.  

  • To Start The Process, Flesh Was Manually Stripped Away

    One of the oldest conventional methods of creating a skeleton dates back to 1543. To start, as much flesh as possible was stripped away without cutting into the joints, bones, or ligaments. It was necessary to keep the ligaments and joints intact to prevent the skeleton from breaking apart during the drying process.

  • Corpses Were Soaked With Quicklime For A Week

    Corpses were then placed in body-length boxes, similar to coffins, but with holes cut throughout. After the initial stripping of flesh, bodies were covered in quicklime and left to sit for a week.

  • Running Water Removed The Remaining Flesh

    Photo: Francesco Bertinatti and Mecco Leone / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The box was then placed in a stream or any other body of running water. The boxes were left out for a week, giving the water enough time to wash away the excess flesh. Afterward, skeletons were left in the sun until they were dry.