Repetition in Fortune’s Bones

Early on in the course I noticed that Doctor McCoy emphasized something key to pay attention to while reading the course material. That key thing is the reviving of once-dead things, or the refusal to let already dead things remain dead. In other words, the creation of a repetition. The idea of repetition is most clearly shown in Fortune’s Bones, and supported in many parts of the early chapters of Medical Apartheid. In looking at Fortune’s Bones, we can create a timeline of Fortune’s life, death, and afterlife, as given to us by the book.

He and his family lived in the late 1700s, slaves to a Dr. Porter, for whom he worked the land, caring for animals and planting crops. He later died in 1798. Porter “preserved Fortune’s skeleton to further the study of human anatomy,” rather than having him buried. “He had two sons who were also doctors. They could learn from the skeleton, too.” Fortune’s bones were examined by Dr. Porter, who would later die in 1803. The bones would stay with the family; “Porter children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren used it to learn the names of the bones.”

The name “Larry” was written on the skull, and “Fortune’s name was forgotten for nearly a century.” The skeleton was lost, and eventually “discovered by a crew of workers.” After yet more time passed, “in 1993 Sally Porter Law McGlannan gave the bones to the Mattatuck Museum. [Where they were] to be assembled for display.” They were displayed there for decades, and “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Pages 21 and 23 of Fortune’s Bones share people’s interactions with the bones, in 1800, 1870, 1890, 1907, and 1960. Finally, the book ends with an afterword that briefly discusses the, as of the publishing of the book, ongoing discussion of whether or not to display Fortune’s bones.

From this very brief biography, it is plain to see the many repetitions going on here. At the beginning of one’s life, one is typically given a name, but in Fortune’s case he was born, named, died, re-named, and his true name was forgotten for a century until discovered again. The bones would be studied by Dr. Porter, and then passed on to his children to be studied, or otherwise played with as in the case of the children playing with the skull in the attic. From the other things we’ve read and seen in this class, particularly the idea that many people were needlessly experimented on, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the medical experimentation on Fortune’s bones was probably also a form of play, a morbid satiating of curiosity.

Over time, the skeleton was lost until it was re-discovered, and once again the bones were given from someone to someone else; first from Dr. Porter to his children, and then from one of his children to the Mattatuck Museum. Indeed, Fortune was essentially owned by a great many people; Porter, his family, and the museum, and was never been allowed to be at rest. The bones were placed on display in the museum, once again allowing all who pass by to see Fortune, as if he were really still living in the world.

While the bones were on display in the museum, “many stories were invented about the skeleton.” Again, the repetition is plain. As you continue to act and interact with other people to any degree, a history is created. In Fortune’s case, he made history during his life, and was then forced to have a lengthy history long after his death. Finally, the discussion at the Mattatuck Museum regarding whether or not to display Fortune’s Bones is, at the end of the book, a matter of current debate.

The many repetitions shown in Fortune’s Bones seems to be a common theme found in other texts we’ve read in class, particularly Medical Apartheid. The fifth chapter of Medical Apartheid, The Restless Dead, discusses grave robbing, particularly of blacks. In it, corpses are dug up and forced to be objects of use by those with the power and will to do so. The morbidity of it all is perhaps best exemplified on page 136 of Medical Apartheid: “posing for professional portraits in anatomy laboratories with remains of dissected cadavers became an important professional ritual for medical students. . . Before 1920, the students were nearly always white and the cadavers often black. Images of African Americans who were lynched and dissected were treated alike in several telling ways. The dead bodies were often horribly mutilated: Body parts are excised and missing, and they are burned, castrated, or fresh wounds are visible. The bodies were also posed in undignified attitudes that accentuated whites’ dominance over them: The lynched were shown handcuffed, bound, hanging, gagged, and tied to stakes…” and so on for another half of a paragraph.

The epigraph for this course is “my job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” When paying attention to the repetitions in the course material it’s difficult not to notice the atrocities committed, or lack of dignity given for other human beings, and it’s difficult not to notice that the authors of these works, such as Fortune’s Bones and Medical Apartheid, believe that other people can notice these things, too.

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