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A body of medical knowledge

A body of medical knowledge

Life, death, and learning are all part of the Human Body Donor Program at Queen’s University

Real human bodies have been in demand as learning tools since anatomy became integral to medical training in the 19th century, says Dr. Charles Graham, head of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology.

“Students need to touch and see the human body in three dimensions. There’s only so much you can learn from a textbook.” Or from models, real or electronic.

Dr. Charles Grahm and students examine a human heart. Dr. Charles Graham (second from left) and some of his students examine a human heart. (Photo by Bernard Clark)


Fortunately for Queen’s, 20-30 generous donors (most of whom are older people) bequeath their bodies each year, ensuring a steady supply of cadavers and tissues that benefit not only research, but also the education of anatomy, life sciences, medical, nursing, and rehabilitation therapy students.

While a few students faint when they see their first dead body, fascination with these “real-world” educators soon takes over. “Each cadaver is someone’s parent or grandparent, and there’s a whole life story attached to each one,” Graham says. “We teach the students to treat the cadavers with dignity and respect. We acknowledge the huge contribution to the training of future healthcare professionals and researchers that these people make by donating themselves to science.”

On any given school day, you can find students in white lab coats in the Anatomy Department examining knee joints, or perhaps studying jars of lungs or femurs in the Anatomy Learning Centre. Next door, in the morgue, is where bodies are embalmed, and there’s also a dissecting room where bodies or body parts are prepared for use – sometimes plastinated, for example, so they can be handled repeatedly without damage.

In the past, anatomy departments faced a shortage of donated bodies – which meant that many that found their way into medical schools were unclaimed cadavers of destitute people, or bodies stolen from graveyards. The Toronto Globe even reported in 1882 – when body-snatching was rampant in Britain, and not unknown in southern Ontario – that Queen’s medical students had opened a grave and stolen the corpse of a young man who had died at Kingston General Hospital.

“There has been a need for bodies ever since the med school opened in 1854,” notes Graham. “And in the old days, there weren’t enough. So maybe some of them did come from questionable sources.”

The rising cost of undertakers’ services likely is one reason for more body donations across Canada of late, but genuine interest in medical education in general and Queen’s students in particular is clearly a motivation.

These days, however, people actually will their bodies to Queen’s. Kingston lawyer Katherine “Cookie” Cartwright, Arts’62, Law’65, plans to do just that. A donation is a familiar idea, but giving your whole body? Cartwright explains she has no qualms about doing so. “What good is my body to me when I’m dead? The students may as well learn from it,” she says.

Cartwright suspects most prospective donors share her practical attitude. “I have no great altruistic motives. I don’t think it’s a generous act at all; I won’t be using my body anymore. Plus, it saves your heirs money.” She and brother John, Arts’58, gave their mother’s body to Queen’s, according to her wishes, and “never got a bill for anything!”

The rising cost of undertakers’ services likely is one reason for more body donations across Canada of late, but genuine interest in medical education in general and Queen’s students in particular is clearly a motivation. The University covers the cost of cremation and funeral arrangements for donor remains. Each year, families, friends, and medical students are invited to a ceremony to honour those who have bequeathed their bodies, and the ashes are buried in a suitably marked University-owned plot at Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetery.

Many students attend the ceremony to show their appreciation for a precious educational gift that no amount of money can buy. “I plan to attend next year,” says Danielle Bentley, Artsci/PHE’09, who is
now working on her MSc degree. “I’m very grateful for this resource in my learning,” she says.

“As an undergrad I continually referred to museum specimens when orienting myself three dimensionally. Now, as a graduate student and lab instructor, I use cadaveric material in most of my teaching.”

There’s just no substitute for hands-on learning, she adds. “Recently, my students had memorized origins and insertions, but they could not visualize how the three muscles that make up the erector spinae group fit together. I used one of the dissected cadaveric models to show them. Students were able to run their fingers
along the muscle fibres and actually feel where one muscle ended and the other began.”

Each May, the Anatomy Department hosts an Open House where the curious – and prospective donors – can see how students and researchers benefit from these gifts. “Last year, more than 200 people attended,” says Graham. “People are very curious, fascinated by the human body – what it looks like inside – and by anything related to death.”

For more information about the Human Body Donor Program, please contact Anita Lister, Queen’s Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, at: anita.lister@queensu.ca; 613-533-2600.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-4 cover]