Dissecting cadavers is a rite of passage for a majority of medical students. 3rd year Emergency Medicine Resident, Rajnil Shah, recalls his first encounter with a human body as a moment he’ll never forget.
“It was scary, but I was excited to see what I could learn from this precious gift.”
For centuries, anatomic specimens have been an integral part of the learning environment for medical students and residents. They remain essential for the many aspiring doctors who train at Jump.
“There’s a great appreciation because those who donate their bodies to science help us understand the human anatomy, become more proficient with medical procedures, and feel more comfortable when we start working with live people,” said Shah.
More than 25 medical students and residents utilize anatomic specimens every month in our anatomical skills lab. They are used to study the human body and practice surgical procedures. Jump and OSF HealthCare strictly adhere to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. We believe it’s important to teach our learners to show respect not only for the living but to those who’ve donated their bodies for the greater good.
Jump staff also makes an effort to educate visitors interested in the anatomical lab about the importance of cadavers in training.
Medical schools seeking to procure specimens today are able to find many accredited vendors that handle bodies donated to science. This hasn’t always been the case.
Mary Roach, in her 2003 book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, sums it up perfectly:
“Few sciences are as rooted in shame, infamy, and bad PR as Human Anatomy. To understand the cautious respect for the dead that pervades the modern anatomy lab, it helps to understand the extreme lack of it that pervades the field’s history.”
Dissection as Sentencing
Religious beliefs prevented the donation of bodies to science in the 16th century. People believed that dissection would spoil the chances of holy resurrection. It was considered a punishment worse than death.
Executed murderers were the only legal source of cadavers for anatomical study in Britain and the United States. The U.S. even adopted a law in 1790 permitting judges to add dissection to capital punishment for murder.
This standard for obtaining cadavers worked well into the 18th and 19th centuries until the number of medical schools began increasing.
Anatomists and medical schools faced a shortage of material. Some enacted extreme measures, such as famed English physician and anatomist William Harvey. Harvey was so dedicated to his calling, he dissected his own deceased father and sister.
Others turned to more underhanded ways of acquiring cadavers. The most common method was body snatching—the act of stealing freshly dead humans from graves. Anatomists referred to body snatchers as resurrectionists.
Resurrectionists found it was an easy way to make money. The pay worked out to about $1,000 a year, with summers off. Anatomy courses were often held between October and May, to avoid the stench of summertime decomposition.
Some anatomy instructors even encouraged their students to raid graveyards at night to provide bodies for class. Certain Scottish schools in the 1700s had a more formal arrangement: tuition could be paid in corpses rather than cash.
The practice of body snatching became so rampant, people hired guards to watch over bodies. Some purchased so-called “anti-resurrectionist” products and services. These included iron cages, morthouses, and coffins outfitted with cast-iron corpse straps.
Then there are those who resorted to murder. The infamous William Hare and William Burke devised a scheme to kill people and sell their bodies to Edinburgh anatomist, Robert Knox. The pair invited passersby into their lodge for the night and murdered 16 people over 10 months before they were caught.
Ironically, Burke was later brought to justice, hanged, and publically dissected. Hare was granted immunity for testifying against his partner. Burke’s bones were shipped to the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh to be made into a skeleton. His remains reside there to this day.
Laws to Stop Body Snatching of Cadavers
Finally, Parliament intervened and passed the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the United Kingdom. This act made body snatching a criminal offense. It allowed unclaimed bodies and those donated by relatives to be used for the study of anatomy.
Massachusetts was the first state in the U.S. to enact laws, in 1830 and 1833, allowing unclaimed bodies to be used for dissection. Over the course of the next decades, many other states followed suit. These measures allowed medical schools to collect unclaimed bodies of people who died in hospitals, asylums, and prisons.
Congress approved the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act in 1968. It officially made body donation a right, morally based on free choice and volunteerism. A second act was signed in 1987 and served to clarify the donation process further. Together these two acts standardized laws among states.
Furthermore, the act established the human body as property, a new privilege that allowed for a donor’s wishes to be honored in court even if his or her next of kin objected to donation after death.
The Need for Donors
Dissection of the human body is a fundamental part of medical training. It helps up-and-coming medical professionals understand the human anatomy and how the body functions.
While technology has found a way to simulate the anatomy of a human being, there’s no substitute for having the ability to maneuver through the intricacies of a human body.
Jump is thankful to have an anatomical lab. We are able to provide exceptional learning opportunities for medical students and residents. Our facility is helping them sharpen their skills and, at the same time, learn that every life is sacred.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach