Anatomy: ANATOMY Bodies by Bequest

When Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place, died in Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital last year, she left a written statement donating her body “in the interests of medical science” to Dartmouth or Harvard Medical School. But Novelist Metalious’ daughter said no.And since in Massachusetts, as in about half of the 50 states, a bequest of one’s own body is not legally binding, the daughter’s objection prevailed. Even without it, Dartmouth would have lost out for another reason: like most states, Massachusetts forbids shipment of bodies for dissection across its borders, and Dartmouth is in New Hampshire.

The Metalious case highlighted a situation that has caused every U.S.medical and dental school a vast amount of trouble and anxiety formost of the past 25 years, and is still afflicting about half of them.Professors say medical students learn anatomy best if only two of themshare in dissecting a body; with 8,800 freshmen entering medicalschools this year, that would mean 4,400 bodies, plus 1,000 for dentalstudents* and at least 2,000 for research surgeons anxious to practiceadvanced techniques. By best estimates, U.S. schools are now getting3,000 bodies a year, only 20% of them by bequest.

No Man’s Property. Under English law, which has filtered through thecolonies to the states, a man’s body is not his own property to “deviseand bequeath.” Nor is it technically the property of surviving kin, butsince they are responsible for giving it decent burial, they have wonthe right to decide what shall not be done with a relative’s body.

Until recently, the schools relied largely on state laws, which providedthat the body of anyone who died with no known relatives, and whoseburial would have to be at public expense, should be sent to a medicalschool. Such arrangements worked reasonably well until World War II,when prosperity, Social Security and VA funeral benefits drasticallyreduced the number of indigent dead. The schools’ crisis becameparticularly acute in the 1950s. Today, the situation has vastlyimproved in a few states.

Closed Seasons. In California, body bequest is not only legal but sogenerally accepted that the medical schools have been forced to setspecific “open seasons” during which prospective donors can bequeaththeir bodies. U.C.L.A. now has 3,500 donation forms, filed by theliving in anticipation of death.

Illinois has set up what it calls the Demonstrators Association to servesev en medical schools, under the motto, “Let the dead teach theliving.” The association gets upwards of 200 bodies a year by bequest,and 300 from state institutions−still far short of the 1,200 that areneeded by all the state’s medical and dental schools and researchhospitals. In New York, famed private schools Columbia University’sCollege of Physicians and Surgeons and Cornell University MedicalCollege get many bodies by bequest, but like other schools they muststill rely mainly on indigents. Florida resembles California in abundance of body bequests.

Carried with Credit Cards. Some schools used to refuse a body if anysurgery at all−even as routine as an appendectomy−had ever been performed on it. Now most insist only that the body be intact (notmutilated, as after many accidents). Post-mortem subjects andcommercially embalmed bodies are also unsuitable. The schoolsthemselves use special embalming techniques for preservation. Mostschools have developed what they call “bequeathal kits” of legallyvalid forms: several issue a wallet card (see cut), to be carried atall times along with the driver’s license and credit cards.

Boston’s three medical schools are still hard up for bodies, and HarvardUniversity’s Dr. Benjamin Spector has enlisted the support of RichardCardinal Cushing, Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn and Episcopal Bishop AnsonPhelps Stokes Jr. “The clergy are behind this now,” says Dr. Spector.Most people who donate their bodies feel they are doing somethinguseful for society as well as saving funeral expenses.

* Though dental training emphasizes the head and neck,students are required to dissect the entire body.

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