1956, Alma Merrick Helms announced she was heading to Stanford University. But she wouldn’t go to classes. When she learned there was a “special shortage of women’s bodies” for medical students, this semi-retired actress filled out forms to donate her corpse to medical college after her death.
If historians of medicine, we were already familiar with the tragic stories of grave robbery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Medical students had to snatch excavated bodies if they wanted corpses to be dissected.
But there was little to no discussion of the thousands of Americans in the 20th century who wanted an alternative to traditional burials – those men and women who gave their bodies to medical education and research.
So we decided to investigate this very physical form of philanthropy: people who literally giving oneself away. We are now writing a book on this subject.
Grave robbery and executed criminals
If more and more medical schools opened before the Civil War, the profession faced a dilemma. Doctors had to cut open dead bodies to learn anatomy, because no one wanted to be operated on by a surgeon trained only by studying books.
But for most Americanscutting up dead people was sacrilegious, disrespectful and disgusting.
According to prevailing ethics, only criminals deserved such a fate after death, and judges intensified the death sentences of murderers by adding the insult to dissection after their executions. As in life, the bodies of enslaved people were also exploited in deatheither sent for dissection by their masters or robbed of their graves.
Yet there were never enough legally available agencies, so grave robbery flourished.
The unclaimed poor
To meet the medical profession’s growing demand for cadavers, Massachusetts introduced the first anatomical law. This measure, passed in 1831, made the bodies of the unclaimed poor available for dissection in medical schools and hospitals.
With more medical schools opening and grave robbery scandals pushing politicians to act, similar legislation eventually came into effect in the United States.
One of the most visible incidents occurred when the body of former Representative John Scott Harrison, both the son and father of US presidents, was involuntarily surfaced on a dissecting table in Ohio in 1878.
In many states, relatives and friends could claim a body that would otherwise be destined for dissection, but only if they could afford the funeral costs.
Not everyone, however, shared the horror at the idea of being dissected.
By the end of the 19th century, a growing number of Americans were willing to do so have medical students cut their bodies into pieces before final burial or cremation. It apparently did not startle or disgust them.
Doctors volunteered, as did nurses, shopkeepers, actors, academics, 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 study their diseases, while others wanted to enable “medical science to advance its knowledge for the good of humanity‘, as George Young, a former wheelwright, asked before he died in 1901.
By the end of the 1930s, advances in corneal transplant surgery made it possible for Americans to donate their eyes to restore sight to blind and partially sighted men, women and children.
Together with World War II blood collectionsheartwarming stories about corneal transplants spread a radical new understanding of bodily generosity.
As efforts to attract donors who would promise their eyes upon death spread in the 1940s and the early 1950s also presented a new problem for anatomists: a decline in the number of unclaimed bodies.
Anatomists gave a numerous factors: rising prosperity in the post-war years; new laws allowing county, city, and state welfare departments to bury the unclaimed; veterans’ death benefits; Social Security death benefits; and outreach by church groups and fraternal orders to care for their poverty-stricken members.
Dear Abby and Reader’s Digest
Concerns arose about this in the mid-1950s cadaver shortages for anatomy lessons. But media coverage of people who chose to donate their bodies began to lead others to follow suit. Good examples are a Dear Abby advice column published in 1958 and a Reader’s Digest article from 1961.
In 1962 Unitarian advocate Ernest Morgan published “A guide to simple burial”, which promoted memorial services as an alternative to lavish funerals. He added a list of medical schools and dental schools that accepted whole-body donations.
Journalist Jessica Mitford, in her wildly popular 1963 book condemning the funeral industry:The American Way of Death”, also endorsed that practice. She helped make donating your body to science a respectable, even noble, alternative to expensive conventional burials.
early sixties, Protestant, Catholic and Reformed Jewish leaders also spoke out in favor of donating bodies to science.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, some anatomy departments had begun to organize memorial services to recognize donors and provide some closure for their loved ones.
Report of such efforts further encouraged whole-body donation.
Letters of encouragement
We’ve reviewed dozens of unpublished letters to and from donors in the 1950s through the early 1970s, during which anatomy professors encouraged potential whole-body donors to see themselves as heroic donors to medical science. Early donors often expressed this altruistic view, wanting their mortal shell to participate in the advancing knowledge.
By the mid-1980s, most medical and dental schools relied on donated bodies to teach anatomy, although a some unclaimed bodies are still finding their way into medical schools. Technology has revolutionized anatomy education, such as at the National Library of Medicine’s Visible human projectBut corpses are still needed.
Images and models cannot replace the practical experience with the human body.
Where many Americans once viewed medical students as ‘butchers’“for exploiting their beloved dead, contemporary students honor what some of these future doctors call their”first patientsfor the precious gift they have been given.