Tom Goodfellow

The Human Tissue Act and the worrying skeletons in my closet

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,

Now hear the word of the Lord”

(James Johnson, Spiritual based on Ezekiel, 37:1-14)

I wonder what happened to my skeleton. Now obviously I don’t mean my personal one to which I am quite attached and which, despite my years, remains in generally good nick. I am talking about the one I had many years ago as a medical student. I bought it second hand (well it must have had at least one previous owner) and I kept it in my room at college – “yes” I genuinely did have a skeleton in the closet (apologies)!

Back in those days (the late sixties) we learned far more detailed anatomy at pre-clinical level than is the current fashion. Indeed some of today’s students seem to have virtually no grasp of anatomy whatsoever. I remember sitting with a student in front of a standard chest X-ray trying to get him to identify at least some of the structures. He managed to spot the ribs but the large heart-shaped structure in the centre of the chest completely stumped him. I hope he never qualified.

The original owner of my skeleton was quite small and the bones were slender, so I think it must have been female and I named her Bertha for no very good reason.

There was a skull and a complete spine with all the vertebral bodies strung together. The calvarium had been sawn open so the internal structures could be seen but both the styloid processes and the pterygoid plates had been snapped off. She had good teeth in both the maxilla and mandible (not a trace of amalgam). There was a complete upper and lower limb with the bones of the hands and feet also loosely articulated with thread. Finally there were twelve ribs, a sternum, clavicle and hemi-pelvis.

I often wondered what happened to the contralateral bones – I mean what use is there for a spare arm and leg but without the rest of the set?

But the other thing I remember about Bertha was her smell. Don’t get me wrong, it was not unpleasant; her flesh and bone marrow had long since disappeared, but it was a dry musty almost fishy type of odour – a sort of dry bones smell.

I often wondered who the original Bertha was and where she came from, and also what was the process by which she ended up in my cupboard. However these days google has the answer to every question and the investigative journalist Scott Carney has done some detailed research.

It appears that the bone capital of the world was India where for 150 years they provided skeletons to many of the great medical schools. There seems to have been little in the way of ethics and consent – it seems likely that the subjects did not voluntarily donate their bodies to science.

But the process used certainly produced high quality clean specimens.

In 1985, the Indian government banned the export of human remains and the skeletons dried up (sorry). However, Carney alleges that the black market trade continues to this day by the time-honoured means of grave robbing.

But do we still need real-life skeletons since you can buy a plastic one from Amazon (and other vendors) for not very much. It has been argued that the artificial ones lack the detail and variety of real specimens. However with high resolution CT scanning and incredibly detailed 3-D surface-rendered reconstruction a detailed image of any individual bone in the body can be produced and the muscle layers applied or removed electronically, which has revolutionised the study of anatomy.

In addition the development of 3-D printers means that any scanned organ can be physically produced in high detail. One of my colleagues, who has an interest in this subject, has several such resin-based organs on his desk including a heart and a fractured skull.

So Bertha should probably be renamed Bindi. I sold her after passing the Primary FRCS to raise some much needed cash so she has now disappeared into the mists of time. This was probably a mistake because the rarity value of real skeletons would now make her quite valuable.

But under the Human Tissue Act 2004 the keeping of unlicensed human remains is now illegal and I would likely be prosecuted had Bindi been discovered still in my possession.

You can imaging the Daily Wail headline: “Shock, horror! Retired doctor found to have human remains in a box under his bed. A police spokesman stated that the identity of the victim had not yet been established but the investigation was at an early stage. However half the body is missing and we have not yet located the other half.”

But in addition to the study of “dem dry bones” we also spent many happy hours in the dissecting room learning our soft tissue anatomy in the classical way – again a pleasure denied to today’s medical students. But that is another story.

Why didn’t the skeleton just die?

It didn’t have the guts!

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One Response to “The Human Tissue Act and the worrying skeletons in my closet”

  1. tommy pop says:

    The Human Tissues Act does not apply to remains of persons who died before 2004, or over 100 years old.

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