The Unnamed Dead

Chapter five of Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid opens with a description of the disappearance of Casper Yeagin, whose body was donated to the Howard University Medical School for anatomical dissection (as later discovered by his niece). Yeagin had no personal possessions when admitted to the Howard University Hospital, causing him to be registered as John Doe. His John Doe tag resulted in no one stepping forward to claim his body post mortem. Washington refers to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act of 1968, allowing unidentified or unclaimed bodies to be donated to medical schools.  The idea that an unidentified body could be donated to a medical school is unfamiliar and surprising to me. While I understand this Act allows for a way to dispose of bodies without them going to “waste”, it led me back to Monday’s class discussion on the display of Fortune’s bones in a museum and if that is truly what Fortune would have wanted for his body.

It seems logical to think most people have a plan for how they would like their body to be treated after they have passed, myself included. Those plans may be based on religion, family tradition, self-interest or personal beliefs. According to Washington, though, “Only 49 percent of people surveyed show interest in donating their bodies to science”, making me wonder about the value of the body and the soul.

One cannot deny that donation and dissection of the human body has helped advance medical research, a reason for why the need is so great. Yet unwitting donation has caused me to consider the ethical nature of the “gift to science”.

-Should bodies be donated for medical purposes if the person herself has not given consent pre-mortem?

-Could this be denying a person the peaceful passage between life and death that they may want?

-Does the absence of a name to a face dehumanize a person’s body?

I do not have the answers to these questions, causing me to find discomfort in the opening of this chapter.

-Reilly Liberto

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