Bodies for Science and Education: The Startling History

Many of us in HAPS have been fortunate to have learned human anatomy either by dissecting human specimens or by working with already dissected bodies. Many of us now teach students using human cadavers as the primary specimens for study in the lab. Beyond that, the anatomical knowledge of the general population results from investigations performed on dissected humans in the past. How many of us have ever considered where the dissected bodies came from? Probably very few; many of us can take for granted the present level of anatomical knowledge. Where these long-gone anatomists obtained their specimens never enters our conscious thought.

Early Asian anatomical art
Early Asian anatomical art

There is a rich history of human dissection dating back to before the start of the Christian era. There are references to human dissection, cadaver investigation, or funerary practices in Egypt, Persia, Babylonia and India that extend back in time over four thousand years. Even then a pattern emerges indicating that those with the least and those guilty of crimes bore the burden of serving as specimens for dissection. There was even a brief period shortly before the Christian era during which human vivisection was practiced on criminals in Egypt.

Over the span of time, bodies have come from multiple sources including debtors, societal outcasts, the mentally ill and strangers, recent unclaimed dead, anatomical oddities and even victims murdered specifically to serve as dissection specimens. Bodies obtained by  “entrepreneur” grave robbers throughout the Renaissance and continuing well into the nineteenth century in Europe and America were the primary supply of bodies for dissection, with bodies stolen from the easily accessed burial sites used by families with few or no real financial assets, and rarely if ever from the much more secure cemeteries of the rich and privileged.

Death mask cast of William Burke and a pocket book made from his skin; Burke was executed in 1828 for murdering people and delivering their bodies to medical school in Edinburgh.
Death mask cast of William Burke and a pocket book made from his skin; Burke was executed in 1828 for murdering people and delivering their bodies to medical school in Edinburgh.

During the nineteenth century in Europe, donation of bodies by family members became legal as a way for the poor to eliminate funeral expenses.  In Tasmania, genocide of the aboriginal population in less than a century largely benefited bone collectors back in England. In America, a booming business in the bodies of African slaves and freeborn blacks signaled another low point in this narrative.

Finally, the successful heart transplant performed in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard in South Africa triggered an increased interest in organ transplantation and the importance of organ and body donations. The result was the passage of the first Uniform Anatomic Gift Act in 1968, creating a sustainable system based largely on altruism to provide for both the needs of the transplant community and those of anatomy and medical education.

Hopefully this narrative that chronicles the thoughtless and often diabolical events of the past will spur those of us involved in anatomy and medical education to consider and appreciate the unwilling sacrifices of so many in the past that made the current state of anatomic knowledge possible. As educators, we should play a role in acknowledging, even briefly, this history to our students and the debt of gratitude we owe to so many who have been so wronged in the past.


Bill Perrotti is a HAPS President Emeritus and a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

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