May 01, 2006

Nature on The Body Snatchers

Nature Medicine this week discusses the market in human body parts and its more nefarious underbelly. I note that "the materials for scientists depend on a supply chain that begins with guys in dark suits expressing strong sympathies." It is a point we put more gingerly in our January column:
When it comes to the body, they say you can't take it with you when you die. But they didn't say it should be sold from the back of a truck. Or that you should not have the right to give a fully informed consent for whatever it is that medical science wants to do with your remains.
The history of the illegal body trade is fascinating, something my colleague Bob Baker has spent time thinking about. Of the 1800s, Emily Waltz of Nature says,
Illegal body trade has long been a lucrative proposition. In the 1800s, the UK and the US saw a sharp rise in the number of medical schools that needed cadavers for their students to dissect. But at the time, dissection was an option only for the poor, who couldn't afford a proper burial, and not for the middle and upper classes.

With the rising demand, medical schools began collecting unclaimed bodies from poorhouses. When there was a shortage, the schools would hire body snatchers to rob graves. In the 1820s, two Irishmen, William Burke and William Hare, reportedly murdered 16 people and delivered the corpses to a doctor for payment.

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