Donate Your Body, Donate Knowledge

By: Kristy Pugh, 1st year graduate student in the Anatomy Program

8313620499_38971b9463_oWe sometimes hear people talk about “donating their bodies to science.”

But what happens to these bodies, and why would anyone choose to give their body away?

This past year, as a first-year graduate student, I had the opportunity to find the answers to these questions firsthand.

Our Gross Anatomy class was a 12-week course and involved a full cadaver dissection.

Each group of 2-5 students was assigned one cadaver to work with over the course of the 12 weeks. Throughout this time, we worked extremely tediously to dissect each part of the body with perfection and to identify and memorize every single bone, muscle, organ, nerve, and blood vessel. Periodically throughout the semester, we were tested on what we had learned so far. A string was tied around an item inside of the body and we were to identify that item.


Something that struck me more than anything else was how different each and every body was. You would think that a stomach is a stomach, or a leg is a leg and they would look pretty similar, right?

Wrong. Some cadavers had differing arterial branching patterns; some had tumors, artificial joints, or pacemakers; and some had organs that were rotten with cancer. I didn’t fully understand the saying, “everybody is different” until this past year, but let me tell you—they weren’t kidding.

In May, after the bodies had been fully dissected and much was learned from each individual body, a memorial service was held for the families of the donors. Since the bodies of their loved ones came straight to our laboratory for dissection, many of them never got to properly say goodbye and this service was their chance to do so.

Some of the students from our class read poems, wrote speeches, or spoke about how grateful they were to have learned human anatomy the proper way, something that some students from other schools might never get to do. At the end of the ceremony, a fellow graduate student and I read aloud the list of donors so say one final thank-you. Emotions ran high that day, and it was nice for students and family members of the donors, alike, to celebrate the wonderful gift that each of the 42 donors gave to us.

Body donation is an option that many people may not even know exists, but is a perfect opportunity to allow scientists, researchers, professors and students to further their knowledge about the human body. The more we learn about how our bodies are designed and why they are designed that way, the more we will understand how to fix those bodies that are not working properly and find cures for those who are sick.

While learning anatomy out of textbooks can teach us a lot, learning it from actual human bodies is the real thing, and these donors have given us the gift of the best education and training that there is to offer.

For more information, check out Humanity Gifts Registry, a body donation non-profit in Pennsylvania.

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