The Strange Story of Hannibal’s ‘Mad Doctor’ Joseph McDowell
In this season of all things creepy, spooky and altogether ooky, we can't let October get by without sharing the story of Hannibal's own "mad doctor," Dr. Joseph McDowell.
Dr. McDowell actually was one of the most influential and respected doctors west of the Mississippi in the mid 1800s. But, to say that he also had an eccentric streak about a mile wide would be an understatement.
The influential part comes with the founding by Dr. McDowell of the first medical school west of the Mississippi, the Missouri Medical College, which became affiliated with the Washington University School of Medicine around 1900.
Where the eccentric part comes in is Dr. McDowell and his students' practice of robbing graves in St. Louis area cemeteries so they could study the cadavers for their anatomy classes. In that day, exhuming of bodies was illegal, let alone grave-robbing.
Dr. McDowell's Hannibal connection came when he purchased what is now Mark Twain Cave and used it for experiments of petrifying corpses by storing them in vats of alcohol. One of those corpses was his own daughter, who had died as a child.
Groups of curious youngsters exploring in the caves came upon Dr. McDowell's experiments. One of those youngsters likely was young Sam Clemens, who many years later would choose McDougal's Cave as the setting for one of the best known scenes from his classic book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It's believed Dr. McDowell was the inspiration for the character Dr. Robinson in Tom Sawyer.
Dr. McDowell would go on to be the Surgeon General of the Confederate Army of the West during the Civil War. He died of pneumonia in 1868 and is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis.