little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped
Was real-life doctor's resemblance to
fictional doctor just a coincidence?
By Paul Niemann
Send a link to a friend
Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell was an interesting
man. Born in Lexington, Ky., on April 1, 1805, he conducted medical
research that might make you think he was a quack.
For example, he hung a
deceased body in a cave that he owned. This doesn't necessarily mean
that McDowell was a quack, though, as he was performing experiments
on the body in his efforts to preserve it. The body, which hung in
an alcohol-filled vat above the cave floor, was that of his deceased
Some of the people who knew McDowell thought he was "insane" and
"mad." Maybe the fact that he was born on April Fools' Day had
something to do with this? Nevertheless, he was known as a fine
McDowell left Kentucky and moved in 1840 to St. Louis, where he
founded the first medical school in the state. He was a Southern
sympathizer during the Civil War, as he was in favor of both slavery
and secession from the Union. He bought 1,400 muskets and three
cannons in the 1850s and set them up to protect his medical school
McDowell may have created the act of "body snatching," as
dissecting corpses was illegal in those days. He and his medical
students resorted to grave robbing as a way of obtaining those
bodies, all in the name of medical research. His history of grave
robbing might have been one of the reasons why people thought he was
a little crazy. Another reason might have been the fact that he kept
a bear for a pet; the bear was once used to scare away an angry mob
In one instance, McDowell was accused of murdering a woman in
order to use her corpse for dissection purposes. When yet another
angry mob began to assault his building, he scared the crowd away by
loading a cannon and aiming it at them.
Meanwhile, the experiments that he performed on his deceased
daughter took place in a cave in Hannibal, Mo., and no story about
Hannibal would be complete without mentioning its two favorite sons,
the fictional Sherman T. Potter of "M*A*S*H" fame and the real-life
Mark Twain. Since this is a nonfiction column, we'll approach this
story from the Mark Twain angle. Besides, truth is much more
interesting than fiction.
[to top of second column]
The cave that the doctor owned just south of Hannibal was known as
McDowell's Cave. It was first discovered around 1820 by a man named
Jack Sims when his dog chased an animal into a small opening in the
cave. Known originally as Sims Cave, it has also served as a hideout
for Jesse James as well as allowing slaves traveling along the
Underground Railroad to hide there during the Civil War.
In Mark Twain's book "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," there was a
fictional character named Dr. Robinson. The fictional doctor tried
to rob a grave, along with Injun Joe and Miff Potter, probably to
sell the cadaver to a medical school. He visited the same cave just
south of Hannibal that Dr. McDowell owned, which was known in Mark
Twain's book as "McDougall's Cave." This sounds very similar to
Was the real-life doctor's resemblance to the fictional doctor
just a coincidence? Or was the fictional Dr. Robinson based on the
real life of Dr. McDowell?
I'll let you be the judge.
While there's no proof that Twain's fictional Dr. Robinson was
based on the life of the real-life Dr. McDowell, there's no denying
the similarities between the lives of the real-life doctor and the
McDowell's medical school was later seized at the beginning of
the Civil War, and he then moved to Memphis. He returned to St.
Louis after the Civil War and continued to practice medicine there
until his death in 1868. His medical school eventually became
Washington University's medical school in St. Louis.
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2009