Working Hands, Indebted Bodies: Embodiment of Inequality and Labor in an Era of Progress

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Novak, Shannon


Aging, Bioarchaeology, Irish immigration, Labor

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology


This dissertation examines the intersections of inequality and labor from the ground (or workinghands and aching back) up through the analysis of the skeletal and archival remains of the Huntington Anatomical Collection (1893-1921). This collection is made up of both immigrants and U.S.-born individuals who died in public institutions around New York City and were subsequently dissected and curated. This postmortem treatment was justified by framing the use of their bodies as a way to repay their "debts" to society—debts accrued as individuals who died while receiving "care" from public institutions. As a documented anatomical collection, demographic information, including country of birth, age, and date, place, and cause of death, are recorded. To interrupt a century of anatomization and anonymization, I apply a multi-sited, life course approach and employ archival and bioarchaeological methods to better understand the unique and varied experiences of the Irish immigrants in the collection. Skeletal data, including analysis of stature, cross-sectional geometric properties of long bones, traumatic injuries, and osteoarthritis, lend insights into the long-term health effects of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1852) and labor undertaken in both Ireland and New York City. Archival data associated with persons in the collection help to emplace the people in the study on the multiple landscapes that they inhabited over the course of their lives. Municipal and institutional records, including death records, almshouse ledgers, and state censuses, shed light on their social networks, labor, health, and movements in and out public institutions, where they received aid and medical treatment. This study contributes to scholarship on the Great Irish Famine, immigration, labor, and inequality. It also joins conversations regarding the ethics of anthropological collections and bioarchaeological practices.


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