Dr. Frank the Body-Snatcher

Frank Billings (1854-1932) was one of the giants of American medicine.  After receiving his M.D. from Northwestern in 1881 he studied in Europe, before returning to set up a practice in Chicago.  He was the longtime dean of Rush Medical College during its affiliation with the University of Chicago. (Contrary to common belief, the university’s Billings Hospital is named for A.M. Billings, no relation.)  Frank Billings also served a term as president of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Frank Billings

Billings knew all of Chicago’s prominent families.  Once of his acquaintances was young Ernest Poole, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.   Poole delighted in re-telling a story of Dr. Frank’s medical school days.

The laws of the time made it difficult to get cadavers for classroom instruction.  Medical students sometimes solved the problem by digging up fresh corpses from the county Potter’s Field.  One night Billings and two Northwestern classmates set out in a wagon to retrieve the mortal remains of a murderer who’d recently been hanged.  On the way they came upon a brightly-lit tavern.

Parked outside the tavern was a wagon belonging to Rush Medical College.  A figure wrapped in blankets was propped up in the driver’s seat.  The Rush students had gotten to the prize first.  Now they were inside the tavern celebrating.

Billings and his two friends transferred the body to their own wagon.  Just then the tavern door opened.  Telling his colleagues to get away, Billings quickly wrapped himself in the blankets.  He climbed into the Rush wagon and assumed the dead man’s place.

One by one, the Rush students staggered out of the tavern.  The first man got into the wagon and checked the corpse.  “Hey fellas,” he shouted, “this stiff don’t feel as cold as he ought to be!”

“And neither would you be, if you were burning in hell like I am!” Billings announced in a spooky voice.

The terrified Rush student tumbled out of the wagon.  With that, Billings grabbed the reigns and drove off in the Rush wagon, laughing all the way.

No, medical school ain’t what it used to be.

—30—

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