For most Americans, being a physician is a respectable profession, held in high esteem and relatively untarnished by the constant health care debates.
But that wasn’t always the case, and one of the first major riots in the post-revolution United States was caused by popular anger against doctors.
The so-called “Doctors’ Riot,” which began on April 16, 1788, and killed as many as 20 people, influenced both the perception of American medicine and the way it was carried out for decades to come, even though it has been mostly forgotten today.
In the closing years of the 18th century, New York was home to only one medical school: Columbia College.
At the time, those looking to practice medicine didn’t have to graduate from a professional school, and this led to some students attending private, not-for-credit classes at New York Hospital, taught by Richard Bayley, a Connecticut-born doctor who had studied in London with the famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter.
Anatomical dissections were a central component of these classes, and medical training in general, but they were offensive, even seen as sacrilegious, to early New Yorkers.
In the winter of 1788, the city was abuzz with newspaper stories about medical students robbing graves to get bodies for dissection, mostly from the potter’s field and the cemetery reserved for the city’s blacks, known as the Negroes Burial Ground.
While some of those reports may have been based on rumor, they pointed to an underlying truth: with no regulated source of bodies for dissection, the medical students had taken matters into their hands and begun plundering the local graveyards.