A fellow blogger, Logtar, tipped
me off to a controversy, and asked if I had anything to say
about it. The controversy has come about over an exhibit: Bodies
Revealed. It’s a traveling exhibit that displays
plastinated human cadavers. The exhibit was organized by Premier Exhibitions, Inc.
A bit of background can be gotten from an article in Scientific
Bodies On Display, from 3 April 2000. The
process was invented by Gunther
von Hagens of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in
1978. An anatomy professor in the USA opened a
laboratory to make use of the technique. The US
laboratory was opened in 1989, at the University of Michigan, by
Professor Roy Glover (photo).
Dr. Glover retired from the University in 2004, holding the
title of Emeritus Professor. He is now the Chief Medical
Advisor for the company that is putting on the exhibit.
When I first started to read up on this, I thought I recognized the
name. I looked into it. He was awarded a teaching
award in 1984. As it happens, I was in medical school at the
University of Michigan at that time. This connection, of
course, would make me hesitant to be overtly critical of him.
Although I would be disinclined to be critical of a highly respected
former professor, if it turned out that he did something wrong, I would
say so. But in a gray area, I’d give him the benefit of the
So, what is the controversy?
Looking around the Internet, I saw quite
a few blog posts that mostly seemed critical of the exhibit.
There were also several letters to the editors of various
papers, things like that. Logtar put it like this:
…When I started hearing that the exhibit was coming
to Kansas City, I was not very happy. I do not believe that science
needs to be displayed in a freak show manner, specially since now our
technology permits the creation of life like materials that are being
used every single day to train doctors. Gone could be the days of gross
anatomy where you could only learn by dissecting cadavers…
I however cannot condone the display of human bodies as a spectacle. I
do not see any scientific or artistic merit on this morbid display. I
am not as satisfied as Union Station CEO Andi Udris with the company
that potentially used unwilling condemned prisoners for some other
exhibits. Even thought the company produced documentation, it is not
enough for me…
So I call on everyone that reads this blog to just skip this exhibit
There are two arguments here. One is that it is disrespectful
to display bodies in such a manner. A corollary of that is
that it is crass to make money from such a display. The
second argument is less obvious, because it depends on the details of
how the bodies were obtained. This, in my opinion, is the
more serious matter.
It has been alleged that (at least some) bodies were obtained
illicitly. As reported by ABC News:
China Investigating Black Market in Bodies
Self-Admitted Participant of Bodies Black Market Described
‘Body Runs,’ Where Bodies Went for $200 to $300
By BRIAN ROSS, RHONDA SCHWARTZ and ANNA SCHECTER
Feb. 15, 2008
Authorities in China and New York have opened investigations into
allegations that a black market in Chinese bodies, which may include
executed prisoners, is sending corpses to the United States for public
The investigations come in the wake of an ABC News report, that aired
this Friday on “20/20″, that features a self-admitted participant of a
bodies black market who described “body runs” to locations where
bodies, including those of executed prisoners, were sold for $200 to
Dr. Glover did provide an
explanation in an interview with the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, he was vague about the details:
Rockville, Md.: I’ve never
received a satisfactory answer as to where these bodies come from and
how they are procured. Please explain. I would feel more comfortable
visiting the exhibition if I knew the deceased people had voluntarily
donated their bodies to science.
Roy Glover: All of the bodies were obtained
through a credited medical university in the People’s Republic of
China. Asia possesses the largest and most highly competent group of
dissectors in the world, and they are highly skilled in preparing the
bodies for educational and scientific purposes. Currently, human
specimens in medical schools in China, the United States and other
countries throughout the world are donated or unidentified bodies.
That interview was from 2007, though, so he was not responding to
official allegations of impropriety. Even so, he knew
perfectly well in 2007 that there was a controversy. In 2005,
the exhibit was in Florida. It was reported:
The exhibit opened today, despite a move from the
Florida State Anatomical Board which voted 4-2 to stop the show out of
concerns that the people never gave permission for their remains to be
displayed. According to the Anatomical Board, such authorization is
required by Florida law. The Tampa exhibit uses unclaimed and
unidentified cadavers from China.
Curiously, the more recent controversy, this time in Kansas City, led
to the following
Glover visited Kansas City in October when Union
Station announced “Bodies Revealed.” He was asked by The Star
specifically about concerns raised by human rights groups that the
bodies may be those of prisoners, political or otherwise.
“The individuals died of natural causes,” said Glover, a professor
emeritus of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Michigan.
“They had made the decision to donate their bodies to a medical school
after their death, and so what happens in China is exactly what happens
in the United States when a person donates their body. … And
the medical school is legally obligated to use it for an educational or
Granted, these were different exhibits, perhaps with different bodies.
But first he said that some were “unidentified bodies.”
In the Kansas City interview, he says the people agreed,
before death, to have their bodies used for educational or research
purposes. It is hard to see how that could be the case with
These apparent inconsistencies are disturbing. It is
important that people be able to trust the medical profession to handle
them with respect, even after they die. Thus, it is necessary
that exhibits of cadavers be arranged with precise records regarding
the origins of the bodies. It is true that there are
confidentiality issues. Such records could not be revealed publicly, or
casually. But every confidentiality statute that I have seen
makes allowances for legal or institutional review.
The Kansas City report includes the following statement:
Union Station CEO Andi Udris said Saturday that the
ABC report focused on “Bodies: The Exhibition,” a separate show also
produced by Premier. The company says that “Bodies: The Exhibition” is
composed of unclaimed bodies but that “Bodies Revealed” is made up of
people who signed donor forms before dying of natural causes.
“I have no reason to believe these people (in “Bodies Revealed”) didn’t
willingly donate their bodies,” Udris said. “It happens every day.”
But anticipating a meeting with local Catholic officials —
and before the ABC report — Udris already had decided he
wanted a greater comfort level.
“I went back to my people and said, ‘OK, what we need here is some
additional evidence,’ ” Udris said. “And what they have provided us is
the donation form, in English, explaining this is what these people
supposedly signed off on. What they have not revealed to us is the
actual copy signed by the person.”
Udris isn’t sure Union Station can demand that information.
This clarifies it somewhat: different bodies, from different sources,
in different exhibits. But no actual evidence is presented.
It would be possible to construct a legal framework for the
licensing of such exhibits, along with a standard for documentation
regarding the origin of the bodies and any consent that may have been
obtained. Apparently this has not been done. Some
communities have responded by simply banning the exhibits.
My personal reaction is to think it is crass to have these exhibits,
even though I am not personally bothered by seeing anatomical
specimens. One thing that sways me is the existence of
merchandise. [These photos are hotlinked, because the site
disables the right-click-save function. (I know it can be
circumvented in at least two ways, but why bother?) ]
me, this tips the whole thing over the edge, into a realm of venal
commercialization. Sure, a keychain with a little model brain
is neat for neuropunk geeks, but I wouldn’t want one: the connection to
an exhibit of actual bodies of controversial provenance is just too
much. In medicine, ethical standards universally call for
being conservative. That is, it is necessary to avoid even
the appearance of impropriety.