The Cadaver Man (1937)


Rixner, WilliamWilliam  Blaine Rixner (1884-1937)

In August of 1937, William Blaine Rixner was visited and interviewed by the well-known  writer, Marcus Christian.  Suffering from a general paralytic stroke several months earlier, Mr. Rixner was unable to speak. “He can write almost anything you wish to know- write it for you in a slow and laborious manner, his left hand holding his right hand to keep it steady,” wrote Marcus Christian.  “His oldest daughter will tell you in an apologetic manner that his writing is hard to understand. Therefore, one must get the story from both at the same time, with the daughter telling what she can of her father, and the father writing in a slow and laborious manner.”

 This is how the story was told…

“He was once a very valuable man, this Negro up at Tulane, the large university on upper St. Charles Avenue. It was there that he labored for 35 years. Through all of these years, he saw white students and faculty members come and go who perhaps later made valuable contributions to the medical world. He became known and loved by all as just ‘William’ until 5 months ago when fate came and he suffered a major stroke.”

William Blaine Rixner was born in New Orleans to Jerome and Catherine Camille Rixner on 7 September 1884.  His father was a carpenter/ contractor. He attended St. Francis Catholic School and went on to New Orleans University which was located on St. Charles Avenue. Unfortunately, he was forced to discontinue his education when his father moved to Galveston, Texas and started a new family.  Since his mother was unable to earn enough money to care for the family, William had to seek employment and soon found work in 1902 at Tulane University. Five years later, he would marry Sylvanie Haines on 28 September 1907.

Hired as a porter, William began sweeping and mopping floors which soon took him into the rooms where cadavers were kept. What a gruesome job for those technicians whose responsibility it was to prepare these dead bodies to be dissected by medical students!  Tulane had a very difficult time keeping men in this department. Many, once they were trained, developed desires to go into medicine, dentistry or pharmacy.

When William began working, there were two white technicians in the department. Often, he would be called in to assist as they went about their duties. William watched as they made histology slides for the School of Dentistry. He watched as they used the microscope. He even watched as they embalmed the bodies and, bit by bit, he learned everything he needed to know.

Soon, William was applying for a license as an embalmer which he continued to seek and received every year.  He became proficient in the execution of the most difficult task, and when the two technicians quit the job, the job was given to him. He would become the only one in charge of preparing cross-sections of specimens for microscopic study as well as charged with the embalming and preparation of cadavers for dissection by students in the medical school.

During the time he was employed in this capacity, his technical skills became so advanced that he could slice sections of anatomical structures into two 25 thousandths of an inch!

Dr. Edmond Souchon, a well- renowned Professor of Anatomy at Tulane, was William’s friend and employer. He set up a museum on campus wherein he displayed a tremendous number of anatomical specimens, many of which Mr. Rixner had prepared. In 1924, William donated a disarticulated human skeleton to the Louisiana State Museum.

In its January 10th 1926 issue, the Tulane Hullabaloo called him the “only colored technician in the United States.” At the same time, Dr. Hardesty of the medical faculty spoke of William’s enviable record and great value to his department.

In his spare time, William Rixner also supervised the core of porters who worked there and even directed or assisted in the task of cabinet making whenever new ones were needed, a skill he learned as a young boy from his father.  He was a Mason and a president of Le Reveil Benevolent Mutual Aid Association.

As Marcus Christian ended his interview, he wrote, “Today, he lives at his home at 1617 Urquhart Street, feeling rather penned up after so many years of effort. But whether or not his life’s work is definitely ended, he can look back upon a record of responsible achievements and distinguished service to his fellowmen. It is probably this satisfaction of having done his best which makes him the man who still can smile.”

William Rixner passed away on 18 November 1937, just three months after this interview. His wife, Sylvanie Haines Rixner, died 12 years earlier but eight children had graced their union. Their daughters were Evelyn (Harold) Dede, Alma (Arthur P.) Derbigny, Arthemise Mary (Walter) Dufauchard, Florence (Walter) Soulet, Louise (Charles) Craig plus three sons: William Jr., Henry, and Irving Joseph Rixner.

The funeral was held at his residence on Sunday afternoon, 21 November and, of course, the faculty and employees of Tulane University’s Medical Department were invited to attend. Services were held at Holy Redeemer Church with interment at St. Louis #2 Cemetery.

Sources : The Louisiana Weekly, 21 August 1937, page 2; Tulane Hullabaloo, 10 January 1926 p. 3, Howard- Tilton Library;  The Times-Picayune, 21 November 1937 page 6.

Lolita V. Cherrie

15 thoughts on “The Cadaver Man (1937)

  1. I am very interested in further information regarding this article as Mr. Rixiner is my great grandfather. How and where did you obtain the interview. I have emailed Tulane University as I am aware that his picture actually hung in one of their buildings.

    • Hi Avus,

      The article on your great- grandfather, William Rixner, which was written in the form of an interview was taken from The Louisiana Weekly newspaper dated 21 August 1937 page 2 at the New Orleans Main Library. (This source is listed at the end of my article.) Within this newspaper article, the writer makes reference to a copy of the “Hullabaloo” from1936 which contained info on your g-grandfather. I,with another researcher, went to Tulane’s library and made a copy but it had far less info than we expected. We also sought out further info on Mr. Rixner in Tulane’s archives.. looking through various yearbooks, medical journals and even had the archivist do further research. Nothing else was found. No one there mentioned a photo of him housed on the campus. The only other possible place where further info may be contained is Tulane’s Medical School located off campus in the Central Business District. If I can be of further assistance, please feel free to get back to me.

  2. Thank you for this article. Growing up I often heard stories of my grandfather. To see it in print and have part of the stories documented means a lot to me. I saw a handbook when I was a teenager showing my grandfather as an instructor in anatomy at Tulane’s medical school in the CBD across from Charity Hospital. My mother, Evelyn told me that the white medical students took exception, and my grandfather’s name was quickly removed the next year. I believe it was 1917. My mother is the oldest daughter mentioned in the article. She often talked about her “Papa.” My uncle, William Blaine, Jr. started working with his father in the 1920s, and stayed until his retirement in the 1970s. My youngest son William Blaine was named for him the year after he passed.

    • Thanks for sending the additional info on your grandfather. It is so interesting!! He was definitely a fascinating man!! Maybe Tulane’s Medical School would be the place to possibly find out more on his role while working there. I’m sure he played an even greater part than I was able to find.

  3. Thanks again for this piece of my family history. There is just one correction on the names for two of my uncles. It is Henry Rixner not Harold, and Irvin is spelled Irving.

  4. Thank you for sharing the article about my grandfather William Blaine Rixner, Sr. Many years ago (pre Katrina) I saw a display case in the medical school located in the CBD that contained a picture of my grandfather working in the lab. I was accompanied by my mother, Arthemise, his daughter. I snapped a picture of the display case which I saved in a very safe place that I am still trying to locate.

  5. That’s fascinating info, Patricia ! Hopefully you will find this photo soon ! I do believe Tulane’s Medical School is the place for your family to go to in order to find further info on your grandfather, William Rixner. Thanks for sharing !

  6. I ve seen this picture of my Great grandfather before, but I ve seen another of him in a laboratory using a microscope. Is there any any way we can contact Tulane to possible locate additional pictures?

  7. Hi Dameon,

    Good News!!!! I have just spoken with Ms. Mary Holt who is the historian for the Tulane Medical School Library. She informed me that THERE IS a picture of Mr.William Rixner, your g-grandfather, hanging on display in the anatomical hallway area of the medical school. She may have it scanned already and she also promised to get back to me by Monday with this information. I’m almost as excited as you and your other family members will probably be on hearing this. I will contact all of you as soon as I hear from her. Congratulations!!!

  8. Mr. Rixner is my greatgrandfatherTrying to do a family tree. And have a family reunion.Wanting to know more information about my family. I want my kids to know who they are. If anyone can give me information and help with a reunion,please do so

  9. Florence Soulet is my Grandmother. If anyone has stories of her with her siblings to share message me on facebook at “Brittany Soulet” 🙂

  10. Co-signing with Brittany Soulet. I just found out about this page through Florence’s son, Darryl Soulet. Brittany Soulet is my half-sister. I can also be reached via Facebook

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