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Donating your body to science? Don’t worry, it’s not what it used to be

Medical schools once battled with a shortage of cadavers, which led to some unsavoury practices. Derek Harper

The recent discovery of hundreds of human body parts in the University of Cologne’s cellars shocked Germany’s academic community and raised broader questions about the rights of people who donate their bodies to medical science and the responsibilities of scientific organisations.

Cologne University staff reportedly discovered decomposing human corpses and large plastic buckets labelled “noses”, “newborns” and “shark head”. Hygiene experts estimate the room might have been unused for a decade or more.

While shocking, it’s not inconsistent with Victoria’s troubled history of dealing with human remains.

Historical cadavers

The British Anatomy Act of 1832 was the first government attempt to establish the ownership of corpses. It followed the public outrage at Burke and Hare’s scheme to provide freshly murdered corpses to anatomy schools. Other body snatchers were raiding new gravesites to meet the growing demand for fresh corpses.

In 1862, when the first Australian medical school was established in Melbourne, corpses were in short supply. So the Victorian Parliament passed the Anatomy Act to legalise the collection and dissection of cadavers. Controversy soon erupted, with newspapers complaining the Act omitted to mention where the cadavers would be sourced. There was also concern that relatives weren’t given enough time – just 24 hours – to reclaim the bodies of their loved ones before they were dissected.

At the time, the inmates of the main benevolent asylum in North Melbourne feared that after they died, their bodies would be taken, without consent and used (and abused) by medical students. They set up a petition against the Act demanding their bodies not be sent to the university but their concerns were ignored.

In the same year, the parliament passed the Electoral Act of 1862, which disenfranchised any person receiving charity in a public institution. From then on, the inmates had effectively no say in the disposal of their bodies. Astonishingly, although many advocates agitated about this iniquity and argued for institutionalised Australians to be given the same rights as other citizens, the provision wasn’t discarded in Victoria until 1975.

Medical schools traditionally relied on unclaimed corpses to dissect in anatomy class. Flickr/PCOM

So for much of its history, the University of Melbourne’s Medical School used the corpses of unclaimed bodies from public hospitals and public institutions – first the benevolent asylums in North Melbourne, Cheltenham and Parkville and later from mental asylums. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that body donations took over as the main source of supply.

If you’re considering donating your body to medical science: don’t worry. The system for receiving, storing and dissecting bodies has been considerably tightened over the past few decades.

A new Victorian Act (the Human Tissue Act 1982) was passed specifically to improve the management of dissection in the university. Now, an anatomy inspector is an active participant in every stage of the use of the bodies. Most bodies are retained in the university for three years; parts are electronically tagged and monitored throughout this time; and the each cadaver is individually cremated and returned to the family for burial.

Questioning historical dissection

Thousands of cadavers have been dissected in Australia since the first medical school opened in back in 1862. But has this really been warranted for anatomy education? Other options, such as text books and models, were available but were less favoured.

John Kratz

The argument that dissection-based anatomy classes led to historical medical innovations doesn’t hold. Contrary to popular belief, many scholars, including Thomas McKeown and Michael Marmot, have shown that medical innovations weren’t primarily responsible for decreasing morbidity and increasing life expectancy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In fact, until the 1950s, very few medical remedies existed to cure disease.

Environmental improvements – such as the introduction of clean water, proper sewerage and the clearing of slums – as well as improvements in diet have played a much larger role.

Modern context

The use and ownership of bodies and body tissue has provided a window into the complex way societies satisfy the medical profession’s dependence on morbid human remains.

We’re fortunate to have strong systems in place to ensure bodies donated to science for medical research and education today are treated with respect and are dealt with methodically.

But when policy makers and legislators question the necessity for the use of human material – tissue, bone or genes – it’s important they keep this history in mind.

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