In 1956, Alma Merrick Helms announced that she was going to Stanford University. But she won’t attend classes. Upon learning that there was a “special shortage of female bodies” for medical students, this semi-retired woman filled out forms to donate her body to the medical college after her death.
As medical historians, we have long been familiar with the tragic stories of grave robberies in the 18th and 19th centuries. The medical students had to snatch the dug up bodies if they wanted to dissect the corpses.
But there was little discussion of the thousands of 20th-century Americans who wanted an alternative to traditional burial—those men and women who gave their bodies to medical education and research.
So we decided to explore this particularly physical form of philanthropy: people who literally give of themselves. We are currently writing a book on the subject.
Grave robberies and executed criminals
As more and more medical schools opened before the Civil War, the profession faced a dilemma. Doctors needed to dissect dead bodies in order to study anatomy, because no one wanted to be operated on by a surgeon trained only in the study of books.
But for most Americans, cutting up dead people was sacrilegious, disrespectful, and disgusting.
In the spirit of the time, only criminals deserved such a fate after death, and judges toughened death sentences for murderers by adding the insult of an autopsy after their execution. As in life, the bodies of enslaved people were also exploited after death: their owners were either sent for autopsy or robbed from graves.
However, legally available bodies were never enough, so grave robberies flourished.
To meet the growing demand for cadavers from medical professionals, the first anatomy law was passed in Massachusetts. This measure, passed in 1831, made the bodies of the unclaimed poor available for autopsy in medical schools and hospitals.
With more medical schools opening and grave robbery scandals pushing politicians into action, similar laws eventually went into effect across the United States.
One of the most notable incidents occurred when the body of former Rep. John Scott Harrison, son and father of US presidents, unwittingly ended up on a dissecting table in Ohio in 1878.
In many states, relatives and friends could claim a body that would otherwise be autopsied, but only if they could pay the burial costs.
However, not everyone shared the horror at the very thought of being dissected.
By the end of the 19th century, a growing number of Americans were willing to let medical students cut their bodies open before eventual burial or cremation. Apparently, this did not frighten them and did not cause disgust.
Doctors volunteered, but also nurses, shopkeepers, actors, scientists, factory workers, and freethinkers—even prisoners about to be executed. Some were people who simply wanted to avoid funeral expenses.
Other Americans hoped that doctors would use their bodies to investigate their illnesses, while others wanted “medical science to expand its knowledge for the benefit of mankind,” as former wagon maker George Young requested before his death in 1901.
By the late 1930s, advances in corneal transplant surgery allowed Americans to donate eyes to restore sight to blind and visually impaired men, women, and children.
Along with World War II bloodletting, touching stories of corneal transplants are spreading a radical new understanding of bodily generosity.
As efforts to recruit donors who pledged their eyes at death spread in the 1940s and early 1950s, a new problem arose for anatomists: the declining number of unclaimed bodies.
Anatomists blamed a variety of factors: rising prosperity in the post-war years; new laws that allowed county, city, and state welfare departments to bury the unclaimed; death benefits for veterans; Death Social Security benefits; and outreach by church groups and fraternal orders to take care of their poor members.
Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest
By the mid-1950s, there were concerns about a shortage of cadavers for anatomy classes. But media coverage of people choosing to donate their bodies began to sway others to follow suit. Good examples include the 1958 “Dear Abby” advice column and the 1961 Reader’s Digest article.
In 1962, Unitarian Ernest Morgan published The Simple Funeral Manual, which presented memorial services as an alternative to grand funerals. He included a list of medical schools and dental schools that accepted full body donations.
Journalist Jessica Mitford, in her hugely popular 1963 book condemning the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, also supported the practice. She helped make the donation of the body to science a respectable, even noble, alternative to expensive conventional burials.
In the early 1960s, reformist Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders also campaigned for the donation of bodies to science.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, some anatomy departments began organizing memorial services to honor donors and say a little goodbye to their loved ones.
Rumors of such efforts further encouraged whole-body donation.
Letters of recommendation
We reviewed dozens of unpublished letters to and from donors between the 1950s and early 1970s in which anatomy professors urged potential full-body donors to consider themselves heroic donors to medical science. Early donors often expressed this altruistic vision, wanting their mortal shells to participate in the advancement of knowledge.
By the mid-1980s, most medical and dental schools relied on donated bodies to teach anatomy, although a few unclaimed bodies still end up in medical schools. Technology has revolutionized the teaching of anatomy, as in the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Man Project, but cadavers are still needed.
Pictures and models cannot replace hands-on experience with the human body.
While many Americans once regarded medical students as “butchers” for exploiting their beloved dead, today’s students honor what some of these would-be doctors call their “first patients” for the precious gift they received. presented.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.