In 1919, Davidson Black”today chiefly remembered as a colleague of Teilhard de Chardin”was made a professor in the Peking Union Medical College, an institution principally endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation. His American benefactors had given him his post with the strict stipulation that he dedicate his energies to creating a respectable department of human anatomy, which he did as scrupulously and as tirelessly as he could. But his real interests lay elsewhere. He had wanted to come to China in order to pursue his interests in human evolutionary history, and in particular to search for fossil remains of earlier hominids in the limestone caves near the village of Zhoukoudian in the hill country outside the capital. It was there that the German naturalist K. A. Haberer had discovered, among the bones of various extinct animals, a tooth that almost certainly had come from a precursor of Homo sapiens , and there also that the Swedish paleontologist Johan Gunnar Andersson wanted to institute a systematic search for traces of humanitys phylogenic forebears.
The administrators of the Rockefeller Foundation, however, had no intention of subsidizing quixotic expeditions into Chinas asperous hinterlands, or investigations in the new and recondite field of paleoanthropology, and so did everything they could to discourage Blacks whims. To keep his employers happy, Black was obliged to devote most of his official working hours to anatomical study and to save his evolutionary research for his private lucubrations. And his daily labors necessarily entailed spending a great deal of time dissecting human cadavers. Of these, fortunately, there was a ready supply available from the municipal constabulary, which was responsible not only for arresting and detaining suspects but also for executing convicts; and the police were all too happy to be relieved of the task of disposing of the corpses themselves, and gladly heaped them into the beds of trucks to send along to the college.