A Deep Dive into The History of Cadaver Use and Whole Body Donation

The use of cadavers to further education of the human body was developed in the third century with the establishment of the school of Greek medicine in Alexandria. Before human dissection, knowledge of medicine was based largely on observation, supposition, the study of animals, and the examination of human bones. In the early 3rd Century, Herophilus of Chalcedon, and Erasistratus of Ceos were the first physicians who overlooked the religious moral and esthetic taboos that had previously stopped any physicians from performing human dissection for anatomical purposes. The use of deceased criminals and Alexandria’s goal to be a center for literature and scientific learning lead to their scientific endeavor to be quite successful.

Concept of scientific propotion, illustration of Leonardo Da Vinci Vitruvian Man about human anatomy

However, after their deaths, human dissection completely ceased. This is thought to have happened because a new medical school rivalled the idea of cadaver use by saying it had no actual scientific benefits and that clinical results could be obtained to non-insavite observations. Systematic human dissection was completely abandoned when physicians turned to clinical analysis from the past and by the burning of Alexandria in 389 AD. Human dissection was considered blasphemous and prohibited from that point on for almost 1,700 years.

Though human dissection was prohibited by the Roman Empire, animal dissection started popping up again in the 11th Century. Then in 1315, for the first time since the death of Herophilus and Erasistratus, a human dissection was performed at University of Bologna. As time went on, the size of sessions to view live anatomical dissections grew and attendees included not only scholars but the public. To accommodate these crowds, anatomical theatres were built and the first established one was at the University of Padua in 1954. Other universities followed suit in Bologna in 1595 and Paris in 1604, for example.

The use of cadaver in the United States followed a strictly similar path as Europe. In 1832, the Anatomy Act Anatomy Act mandated that unclaimed bodies would play the central role in anatomical dissection, but this act was repeatedly manipulated or ignored. This was because of a pattern that emerged to clearly show that their unethical means to get a body from grave to dissection table. Examples are grave robbing, body snatching of the poor or simply using unclaimed bodies. The bodies were usually those of deceased convicts, the poor, slaves or the mentally ill.

It was not until 1968, that the Uniform Anatomical Gift act was passed to protect the interest of whole body donors and their families. During the latter part of the 20th century, different parts of the world started to promote whole body donation for the purpose of anatomical studies and the successful promotion led to the stabilization of willing body donors. This satisfied the demands of most medical schools across the United States, this also led to a change in social beliefs about whole body donation and medical professionals were frequently donating their own bodies because they knew the value of cadavers. Cadavers offer insight into human anatomy, provide information about how diseases affect our body, allow surgeons and doctors to practice and perfect techniques. They also allow researchers to develop medical devices, improve drug delivery systems, and even help further the research of cancer or Alzheimer’s.

Whole body donation and organ donation has spread to multiple universities, offers many different programs, and has proved itself as a chief source of education and research. To remain ethical and in the best interest of donors, most whole body donation programs stress informed consent, emphasis on an openness with donor and family and most donors receive commemoration for their selfless donation in the name of science.

Sure, there is still a stigma around whole body donation, realistically, there always will be. You can see the growth of popularity with whole body donation with an increasing number of donors averaging at 20,000 Americans per year. From unethical means of getting bodies to a significant increase of willing donors and from being considered immoral and prohibited to a staple in medical education and research, the growth of human dissection for anatomical purposes is phenomenal.

Share this:
Research For Life - Understanding Whole Body Donor Consent

Hello, my name is Garland Shreves, CEO of Research For Life. I want to take a moment to discuss some very basic information with you regarding consent forms, in general, that you may encounter when considering to donate to a whole body donor organization.

First and foremost, you need to understand and read the consent form, also known as the authorization form or document of gift, so you know what you are consenting to.  Ask questions of the organization if you don’t understand something. 

 All states require, under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, that consent be granted by an authorized agent of the donor or self-authorization before death.

Each state defines who in the consenting class has the most authority to direct donation. Such as the medical power of attorney, spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, etc. and differs slightly in each state. 

Consent may be given by means of a verbal recorded consent or by a written document of gift.

Research For Life uses a written consent form which can be found on our website.

Understand that the donor or authorizing agent is giving the body to an organization. Once given it belongs to the organization to use in accordance with the consent form.

In other words, the donor organization is free to use the donor provided it does so within the terms

of the consent, it may not use the donor in a manner not consented too.  

The consent may state how the body may be used.  Educational and/or research purposes or some other purpose may be stated or in the discretion of the donor organization.

Research For Life provides cadavers and/or anatomical specimens for education and research purposes and does not do ballistic testing.

The consent may state that the body will be used in whole or in parts. It may also state that the anatomical parts may be used domestically and or internationally.

And most consents will cover some basic things like consent to test the donor for diseases and order medical records to help best determine the medical suitability for the donation.

The consent may also touch on issues like for profit or nonprofit status and if the donor or anatomical specimens will be used by one or more or both types of entities.  Remember that regardless of an organizations tax status they all charge fees to end users who order anatomical specimens and offer those specimens to both for profit and nonprofit entities.

From the very start of the donation process costs to the donor organization begin. 24-hour answering service, transport team to respond 24/7, qualified trained staff paid a livable wage with benefits and retirement, electric, gas, phone, insurances, building payments, maintenance, medical director, and regulatory requirements, and cremation fees. And these are just some of the expenses that an organization may have to cover.

Another item you may see on most authorization forms is a release of liability, a hold harmless agreement, excluding misconduct of course.  

Research For Life states clearly it will not and donor or agent agrees that Research For Life will not be held responsible for acts of third parties in connection with the donation.

Another item that reduces a donor organizations liability is the Anatomical Gift Act prohibits criminal, civil or administrative actions provided there is no intentional misconduct on the part of the donor organization. In other words, if the donor organization acted in good faith it is immune and provided some protection from lawsuits.

Another important part on a consent form is the person signing the authorization attests (affirms) that they have the authority to direct the donation. The donor organization accepts the authorizing agent’s authority in good faith barring any information known to it at the time of donation that would contradict the authority of the person authorizing donation.    

Remember, should you decide to register, tell your family and friends about your decision.

Also, the donation authorization form is not valid until notarized or signed by two witnesses; one witness must be non-family or disinterested party. 

Consent forms contain other important information that you need to read and understand.

All documents of gift or authorizations can be cancelled prior to death.

I want to thank you for taking the time to watch this video and I hope it helped provide you with some basic information regarding whole body donation consent forms.  Thank you.