Just as they do today, University medical students in the mid-19th century studied human cadavers in the early stages of their medical training. Unlike today, though, the cadavers those students studied were not donated legally. Rather, they were acquired in a decidedly illegal, morally questionable, no-questions-asked manner reminiscent of a horror movie.

In the 1860s, before amendments to the Michigan Anatomy Act of 1875 allowed easier access to cadavers for educational purposes, the University procured cadavers in every imaginable way, such as buying them with cash from random brokers — with no knowledge of where they came from — or even stealing them from anonymous graves, according to Horace W. Davenport’s history of Michigan’s medical school. According to Davenport, three professional body snatchers were arrested in Toledo, Ohio in 1878 after authorities found they had a contract to ship about 130 bodies to — you guessed it — Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Today, the University’s Anatomical Donation Program — note the use of the word “donation” — is legitimate, and is certainly no longer robbing graves. Aided by the state’s Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Law and similar legislation in the past 60 years, the University’s program accepts over 300 gifts per year and has more than 7,000 future donors already registered.

In 1909, the original Michigan Anatomy Act was revised, effectively providing the University with nearly 100 legally obtained bodies per year. Almost 100 years later, RUAGL, (which stemmed from changes to Michigan state legislature in 1958, 1969 and 1978), was enacted in 2009. RUAGL’s adoption in Michigan created near uniformity across states in anatomical donation law, in addition to simplifying the donation process and protecting donor intent.

Anatomical donations are essential for medical students’ education, as they are oftentimes referred to as students’ “first patient.” Anatomy courses rely on such donations to provide their students with first-hand knowledge of the basic structure of the human body, knowledge that serves as the foundation for years of medical training ahead.

The donation process

The process of donating one’s self to medicine is not as easy as dropping off a body at the Medical School steps. There are legal and procedural requirements taken by both the donor and the University to ensure the safety and legitimacy of the body being donated.

The University keeps a strict protocol when dealing with anatomical gifts. Once the donation has been permitted by RUAGL — requirements including notification to the donor’s family, registration with the University and proper delivery of the body by a funeral home, among other things — the donation is then inspected. In order to be used in the classroom, the body has to be in the proper state, meaning no emaciation or obesity, no extensive burns or mutilation and no history of contagious diseases.

In addition to physically clearing the body, the University enforces privacy and respect for the dead to the upmost extent, as the bodies are never on display in the open and are used solely for medical purposes.

Getting to know the bodies

Though the program can be summed up neatly in terms of its strict legality, respectful procedure and clear necessity, the human aspect of the process cannot be ignored. These cadavers were, at one point, the bodies of living, breathing people who led real lives and, for whatever reason, chose to donate their bodies to science.

Understandably, things become a little murky when attempting to draw a line between the rigid process of studying a cadaver in a medical context and the innate emotion associated with the death of a fellow human. How, then, do you reconcile both the scientific and moral aspects of a notion such as anatomical donation — a concept that is truly without societal parallel?

One way the program is trying to bridge this gap between the scientific and the personal is a new initiative beginning this year that allows donors to voluntarily prerecord videotaped messages to accompany their body. These video messages, in which the donor is able to talk about whatever he or she chooses, are played for the students — again, voluntarily — before they begin their dissection. Though it may sound uncomfortable to watch the person you are about to cut open talk about their life via a video message, two studies from 2011 show that medical students actually desire a more personal relationship with their donors.

Published in the journal “Anatomical Sciences Education,” the studies led by University alum Michael Bohl, found 74 percent of students and 81 percent of donors surveyed said they would participate in the video-message program, while the vast majority of students answered that they wanted a deeper personal connection with their donor.

“You really want to know what type of person donates their body to science,” said Dean Mueller, the University’s Anatomical Donor Program coordinator. “Are they doing it for personal reasons? Are they doing it because they like our football team? You never know. It can be so many different dimensions, and it was interesting to think, ‘Why would you donate?’ ”

No matter the reasons behind the donation, Mueller, the students and the program’s overall sentiment towards its donors is one of humility and great thankfulness.

“You immediately feel an obligation to accept the donation and use their body for the best possible way that we can use them, and to learn everything that we can learn from them,” Mueller said.

These feelings, along with others of gratitude, admiration and honor, were expressed repeatedly throughout the Medical School’s annual Donor Memorial Service, held Sept. 18 in Rackham Auditorium.

The service itself is certainly unlike any other type of memorial. The entire program — from musical performers to ushers — is staffed completely by current medical and dental students, all dressed in white lab coats, as a demonstration of respect and thankfulness to the donor’s families in attendance. Several students gave short personal remarks detailing their own personal experience with the donors and the incredible learning experience that they gained from the opportunity.

These students also expressed thanks for the donor’s gift. Students touched on their inability to repay a donor’s selflessness and echoed Mueller’s statement of honoring their donor’s legacy in the only way they can: by becoming the best physicians, dentists, nurses, physical therapists and health professionals possible.

On the front of the program for the memorial service, there is an inscription of a Latin phrase that is also seen on a plaque in the Anatomical Donations Program: Hic Locus Est Ubi Mors Gaudet Succurrere Vitae. “This is the place where death rejoices in coming to the aid of life.”

It is this balance, of the dead helping the living then the living paying respect back to the dead, that makes anatomical donation one of the more fascinating and complex processes in society.

“It’s not even really about the students,” Mueller said. “It’s about humanity and those student’s impact. You can say that (the donors) are giving (their bodies) to the students — which, in a sense, they are — but they’re really just passing on something positive to the world.”

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