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Acad Med. 2007 Oct;82(10):1000-5.

Let the dead teach the living: the rise of body bequeathal in 20th-century America.

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America's medical schools have long used human cadavers to teach anatomy, but acquiring adequate numbers of bodies for dissection has always been a challenge. Physicians and medical students of the 18th and 19th centuries often resorted to robbing graves, and this history has been extensively examined. Less studied, however, is the history of body acquisition in the 20th century, and this article evaluates the factors that coalesced to transition American society from body theft to body donation. First, it describes the legislation that released the unclaimed bodies of those dying in public institutions to medical schools for dissection, thereby effectively ending grave robbery. Then it discusses midcentury journalistic exposés of excesses in the funeral industry-works that were instrumental in bringing alternatives, including the previously unpopular option of body donation, to public consciousness. Finally, it examines the rise of body transplantation, the Uniform Anatomical Gifts Act of 1968, and the subsequent state of willed-body programs at the turn of the 21st century. Body-donation programs have gradually stabilized since and currently provide most of the bodies used for dissection in American medical schools. Relying as they do on public trust, however, these programs remain potentially precarious and threatened by public scandals. Whether American medical schools will receive enough bodies to properly educate students in the future remains to be seen.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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