Cadavers: Where do they come from?

Anyone watching Brothers and Sisters last Sunday saw Justin Walker getting ready to cut open a cadaver as part of his medical school training. Where did that cadaver come from? How did it get to a medical school?

A brief history of cadavers

Medical schools have used cadavers for training for more than 200 years. Over this period of time, the methods of acquiring and preserving them have changed. Criminals who were executed for their crimes were used as the first cadavers since Christians believed that the souls of dissected bodies could not go to heaven and few offered their bodies to science. As the number of criminals being executed decreased, it became commonplace to steal bodies from graves in order to keep the market supplied.

The tradition of dissecting criminals continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth century when anatomy schools became popular in England and Scotland. The only cadavers available were criminals’, and anatomists were portrayed as no better than an executioner.

Anatomy schools began to steal bodies from graves. “Grave robbers” were technically people who stole jewelry from the deceased, but stealing a dead body was not a crime. Some anatomy instructors encouraged this “body snatching”. Students sometimes paid tuition in corpses or dug up bodies as late night pranks.

Some respected anatomy instructors dug up bodies themselves. In fact, the anatomist Thomas Sewell, who later became the personal physician for three U.S. presidents, was convicted in 1818 of digging up a corpse for dissection.

Anatomists would even dissect members of their own family. William Harvey, the man famous for discovering the circulatory system, was so dedicated that he dissected his father and sister.

By 1828 anatomists were paying others to do the digging. At that time, London anatomy schools employed ten full time body snatchers and about two hundred part time workers during the dissection season. This period ran from October to May, when the winter cold slowed down the decomposition of the bodies. A crew of six or seven could dig up about 312 bodies. The average body snatcher made about one thousand dollars a year, ten times more than the average unskilled laborer of that time period, with summers off.

Stories appeared of people murdering for the money they could make off cadaver sales. Two of the most famous were Burke and Hare. . Realizing the possible profit they could make from selling cadavers, they supposedly murdered sixteen people over the next nine months and sold their bodies to different anatomists. They were eventually caught. Burke was found guilty, hanged, and publicly dissected. Hare testified against Burke in exchange for his freedom.

By the 1890s body snatching was less common and by the 20th century it had all but disappeared. Embalming and preservation of cadavers became more advanced and education in medical schools improved. Students no longer had to quickly dissect bodies before they decomposed. These dissections were orderly and complete. The medical profession received new esteem by diagnosing and healing more people. With that respect came a larger supply of cadavers, making body snatching almost non-existent.

Cadavers today

There is an ongoing demand for cadavers for medical research and training. Today, medical institutions cannot buy a body. The cadavers used by medical institutions come from people like you and me who decide to donate their whole body for medical research when they die.

Although there are no national laws governing this type of body disposition, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act was developed and recommended for adoption by individual states. It covers organ and tissue as well as whole body donation. Today, the majority of states have laws governing whole body donation.

If you want to donate your body for medical research, it is better to make arrangements with a medical institution before you die. When you die, your family will contact the medical institution and make arrangements for delivering your body to the medical institution. When the medical institutions is finished with your body, they will cremate the body and return the ashes to your family

A list of some of the groups who will accept a body is maintained by the University of Florida at

Make a gift when you die

Cadavers are needed for both research and training. Some of our cures today came from research doctors and scientists performed on cadavers.

When planning your funeral, consider the option of donating your whole body to a medical institution. Make it possible for students like Justin Walker to have access to cadavers for research and education.

Tags: whole body donation, cremation, funeral planning, diesmart, cadaver

4 thoughts on “Cadavers: Where do they come from?

  1. Starry

    Interesting article. I found this because I was reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (weird but interesting book by Mary Roach) and started to wonder where modern day cadavers come from. Body donation to a medical institution sounds interesting! Do you know if the cremation is free? It’s weird and creepy but I am considering doing it when I die. I loveeeeeeee anatomy so it would be a fitting end for me, I suppose.

    1. Janet

      Yes. There is no cost to the family. And they will send you a certificate after the ashes are scattered. I dealt with UCSF. They were great! I was able to send a very extensive medical history to them which they said would make it more likely that they could do pathological research.

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