5 things you didn’t know about donating your body to science

Imagine you’re a medical student, on your way to becoming a top surgeon, about to dissect your first human cadaver. Would you prefer the body of someone who had donated their body to science, or one that was never claimed at the coroner?

Before the 19th century, physicians sometimes had to resort to grave robbing to get cadavers for anatomical research. Ruben Holthuijsen/Flickr
Before the 19th century, physicians sometimes had to resort to grave robbing to get cadavers for anatomical research.
Ruben Holthuijsen/Flickr

It’s not a hard question to answer, but according to Susan Lederer, professor of medical history and bioethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the early days of anatomical research students didn’t have much choice in the matter.  As the author of several books including “Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War,” Lederer knows a lot about donating bodies to science. Here are five things you didn’t know about the history of anatomical research from Lederer’s lecture today at AAAS.

1. EXECUTIONS AND GRAVE ROBBING
Finding bodies for anatomical instruction and study was challenging. “Before the 19th century, the only dead bodies legally available for dissection were those of executed individuals,” Lederer said.

Some states had laws mandating that executed bodies be given over for dissection, but in states that didn’t (and even some that did) physicians sometimes had to resort to illegal ways of getting bodies for dissections, like grave robbing.

“The theft of newly dead bodies and suspicion of doctors and medical students prompted well known riots,” Lederer said.

2. PROHIBITION HURTS THE BODY COUNT
Even after new state laws made unclaimed bodies and bodies to be buried at public expense available to medical colleges, researchers still complained of never having enough.

In 1921, faculty from a medical college in Missouri warned that national prohibition was reducing the supply of bodies.

Anatomists complained that not only had the supply of bodies dwindled because of “fewer unidentified drunks frozen in the alleys in the back of saloons,” but the future was bleak unless “the drinking element could be encouraged to make home brews … to keep the numbers up.”

In the second half of the 20th century, donating your body to science became more common.
In the second half of the 20th century, donating your body to science became more common.
Eva Voinigescu/MEDILL

3) “HAS YOUR CADAVER SUPPLY INCREASED OR DECREASED IN THE PAST 5 YEARS?”
In 1955, the National Society for Medical Research did a survey that showed how uneven the U.S. cadaver supply was.

The society reported that the nation’s cadaver supply had decreased in 31 schools over the previous five years.

Washington, D.C.,  had an “acute shortfall.” California and Florida had too many.

Publicity surrounding an alumnus’ donation led to hundreds of donors for the UCLA School of Medicine. The school got so many donors that in the early 1960, it had to refuse future body bequests from people over the age of 50. Part of the reason UCLA was so successful at finding donors was because the anatomy department allowed families to hold funerals before they took custody of the bodies and promised respectful handling of postdissection remains.

Florida on the other hand had lots of bodies because of a lack of social welfare funding to bury those who couldn’t afford funerals. The head of the anatomy department at the University of Miami school of medicine even made a personal point of contacting people on their deathbeds in the university hospital to explain the “undue expenses of the funeral,” Lederer said.

The National Society for Medical research offered certificates to commend those who donated their body to science.
The National Society for Medical research offered certificates to commend those who donated their body to science.
Eva Voinigescu/MEDILL

4) BADGES OF HONOR FOR BEING A DONOR
In 1962, the New England Journal of Medicine offered certificates and wallet cards to recognize people’s commitment to being a body donor. The society and a group of anatomists dreamed up the certificates in 1959.

5) MORE WOMEN THAN MEN
As the economy failed to rebound in 2008, Lederer noticed a change in the number of bodies being donated to the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. Not only were more bodies being donated (possibly as an alternative to paying expensive funeral costs), but more women were donating than men.

In 2008 to 2009, 49 percent of donors were men, and 51 percent were women. In 2010, the number of female donors rose to 71 percent.

Lederer said that some writers attribute this to the fact that women have fewer financial resources than men and are potentially more concerned about burdening their families with funeral costs. Once again, donating your body to science could be a solution to the high costs of a regular burial service.

However, as Lederer mentioned, “surprisingly… little is known about contemporary participation in American body donor programs.”