June 15, 2011

Female Professional Embalmer, 1900

This article about a female embalmer comes from the Kentucky Irish American newspaper of Louisville, Kentucky, printed on December, 1, 1900.

Interesting Interview With Miss Katie Smith Upon That Subject.
The Only Lady Following That Profession in the South.
Bodies Can Now Be Prepared For an Indefinite Time.
Miss Katie Smith, daughter of the late Gran W. Smith, the only lady embalmer in the South, has made a long and successful study of the subject of embalming, and today she is recognized as one of the most proficient practicing that art.  There has been a growing demand for her services recently, her reputation extending through many adjoining States, especially as many parents prefer her to men when young women are to be embalmed. 
Miss Smith, whose picture accompanies this article, talked most interestingly and instructively to the Kentucky Irish American upon this subject, giving much information that is known to but a few.  She is now associated with Gran Smith's Sons, the well-known undertakers at Seventh and Walnut streets, a firm that has been in continuous existence perhaps longer than any in this city.  Among many other things she said: 
In order to practice their profession intelligently and successfully there is a certain amount of knowledge that the embalmers should and must possess.  They need not be educated in the classics and arts, but they should be possessed of a certain amount of knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the human body, particularly those parts pertaining to embalming.  They should have a good general knowledge of the vasular system, a knowledge of visceral anatomy and be acquainted with the formation of the general and serous cavities; be able to raise and inject arteries with ease and with very little mutilation; understand the modern methods of doing cavity work; be somewhat acquainted with the morbid condition of bodies dying of certain diseases, and understand all the expedients that are resorted to by the up-to-date embalmers in overcoming the various obstacles to be met with in the practice of their profession. 
In addition to this they must have a knowledge of hygienic and sanitary laws, a knowledge of germicides and be able to protect the living as well as to care for the dead.  To this end embalming schools have been instituted and books written, and to insure the public against ignorance laws are being passed in many States to compel the undertaker to prove his ability in these directions or get out of the way for wiser and better men who are always waiting eagerly and anxiously to take the place of the slow and unprogressive element who are found bringing up the rear of all trades and professions.  Of the art of preserving dead bodies as practiced by the Egyptians, I think very little is known, although much has been said and written upon the subject.  After reading some of the long essays upon the method practiced by the Egyptians, in which every detail of the work is given, even to the price paid for it, one is led to exclaim: "Why is it called the lost art?" 
The word "embalming" implies the use of balsam, which, entered largely into the preparations used by the ancient embalmers in preserving the dead from putrefaction and the attack of insects.  It is said that the ancient Egyptians not only embalmed the bodies of human beings, but also those of the lower order of animals, such as cats, crocodiles and several species of what they called sacred animals.  It is believed by some that the origin of embalming in Egypt is to be traced to the lack of fuel for the purpose of cremation and the danger to the people of burying in a soil that was so likely to be disturbed at any time by the overflowing of the River Nile.  But if there is any reliability to be placed in history, most of the bodies of the Egyptians were placed in open sepulchres, and I should judge that this was the principle reason for their being put in a condition where putrefaction could not take place, as even at that early day it was probably known that putrefied bodies were very detrimental to health, not to say anything about the disagreeable odors that were sure to arise.  From the foregoing it will be readily seen that the work done by the modern embalmer, though in every way superior to that preformed by his ancient predecessors can hardly be properly termed "embalming," as that word implies the use of balsam or balm, which, of course, we do not use, but as the ancient term "embalm" was applied to a person whose business or profession it was to preserve the dead we have very properly adopted it.  While it may be truly said that we do not understand the art of preserving the dead by the use of balsams, it can certainly be said of many engaged in this profession at the present time that they thoroughly understand the art of preserving the dead bodies by the intelligent use of chemicals.  In the earlier practice of embalming it was not expected to hold a body any great length of time, a week in warm weather being considered quite a triumph for the embalmer's art, and it was not claimed by even the most scientific in the profession that they could hold each and every body for an indefinite period of time.  But the art has grown and improved as the years have gone by until today cases that were formerly considered almost hopeless are easily taken care of and hardly any limit is placed on the time a body can be kept.  Skilled embalmers now assure the friends that they can set their own time for burial.  During the civil war, Dr. Holmes, late of Brooklyn, N.Y., practiced embalming in a crude way in the army, embalming many of the officers and men for transportation to their homes in the North.  In 1880, Prof. J. H. Clark, now of Cincinnati, commenced the business of traveling through the country holding three-days' school for the instruction of undertakers who might come to him for that purpose.  Prof. Clark claims to be and is justly entitled to be called "the father of embalming schools." 
[Photograph of Miss Katie Smith] Caption: MISS KATIE SMITH.  She has acquired an enviable reputation as an expert embalmer.

Kentucky Irish American, Louisville, KY - December, 1, 1900

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