IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Med school's antique cadaver found — on eBay

It was an ethics exam in a journalism class, and someone may have cheated. Ironic? Yes. Unfortunate? Certainly. But what made the incident particularly notable was where and when it took place: at Columbia University, one of the premier journalism schools in the country.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When the University of Maryland's medical school opened 200 years ago, doctors had one big problem: They needed dead bodies, and there was no good way to get them.

In those early years, the school turned to grave robbing. More than a few corpses got yanked out of fresh dirt in nearby cemeteries and wound up on the dissection table for anatomy lessons.

So as U-Md. begins to celebrate its bicentennial and a distinguished history as the nation's oldest public medical school, it seems only fitting that one of the centuries-old cadavers has resurfaced.

In Michigan.

On eBay.

Everyone, it seems, has a skeleton in a closet. And even weirder: There are still people willing to pay for them.

* * *

The school's founding in 1807 can be traced to an ugly incident over a cadaver. Word had spread that John Beale Davidge, a Baltimore doctor, was dissecting a corpse to teach anatomy. An angry mob smashed his building to pieces, an uproar that prompted Davidge and other doctors to win state approval for a Maryland school offering formal medical training.

"There were reports of hostility when it was discovered a grave had been emptied," said Larry Pitrof, executive director of the Medical Alumni Association, whose book on the school's history is scheduled to be published next year. "They had a pretty good idea where it had wound up."

Medicine didn't have much of a reputation back then. Sometimes barbers acted as surgeons, many common diseases had no known cure, quacks sold bottles of cure-all. And anyone serious about the study of anatomy had to get bodies -- somehow.

Without dissections, the only way medical students could really learn was in surgery, said Ronn Wade, director of the Maryland State Anatomy Board. "And they didn't have anesthesia then. It's kind of hard to learn anatomy when you're trying to cut something out [and] the patient's screaming and yelling and hemorrhaging."

U-Md. was the first school in the country to make dissection compulsory, Pitrof said. But it wasn't until the late 1800s, with a growing recognition of the importance of medical education, that Maryland legislators made it legal for the medical school to use unclaimed bodies.

In some countries, scientists were allowed to use bodies from poorhouses or of criminals hanged from gallows. But there was plenty of grave robbing, too -- enough so that wealthy people sometimes put slabs of stone over tombs or hired guards to stay by grave sites until the bodies could decompose.

In the early 1800s, two men in Scotland killed 16 people and sold the bodies to a doctor. That prompted new laws in Maryland, where, in a few rare instances, a drunken sailor would disappear: "They would smother him and turn the body over to the Maryland doctors at a price," Pitrof said.

A medical school janitor (named Frank) would follow funeral processions to a cemetery and go back at night to get the body. In 1830, a professor of surgery wrote to a doctor at Bowdoin College in Maine: "It will give me pleasure to render you any assistance in regard to subjects. . . . I shall immediately invoke Frank, our body-snatcher (a better man never lifted a spade) and confer with him on the matter. We can get them without any difficulty at present. . . ."

The professor went on to set the price and promised to send three bodies packed in barrels of whiskey.

* * *

From its early days, the school has had a rare collection: hundreds of mummies and body parts from the late 1700s and early 1800s.

They came from two brothers in Scotland: John Burns, a surgeon, was found guilty of body snatching; Allen Burns studied anatomy and embalmed hundreds of bodies using arsenic, mercury and other substances, dissected them and then preserved them with sugar and salt. One of his proteges, who was indicted in Scotland, brought the collection to the United States when he joined the faculty at Maryland.

Over the years, many of the bodies got spirited away.

One still lies deep inside Davidge Hall on the Baltimore campus, near the old anatomy classroom at the top of the domed building. A narrow wooden staircase, hidden in the back, spirals up past peeling, water-stained plaster walls. At the top, under a low ceiling, a skinny, wrinkled brown body lies on display in a dark corner on a dissection table.

That's Hermie, affectionately nicknamed by some med student long ago.

About 15 years ago, one of the missing 200-year-old Burns cadavers found its way back: A guy in Southern Maryland called the state anatomy board. He had found -- in a closet -- the mummy of a child. His great-great-great uncle had graduated from the medical school in the late 1800s and tucked the cadaver away with his medical books.

* * *

You'd think selling bodies would be ancient history. But despite long-running programs allowing people to donate their organs and bodies after death for medical science, this year a black market of body parts made headlines nationally and internationally. In a case in California, for example, hundreds of bodies were illegally carved up.

With growing demand for tissue and bone, some corpses were disappearing, with organs and other body parts sold to medical research facilities, tissue banks and the like.

And every now and then, there's an odd little incident.

Such as last month, when a doctor called police in Michigan because he saw a mummy posted on eBay. There was even a bid on it, $500 from "Satan's Child." (The online auction site removed the posting because it doesn't allow the sale of human bodies or body parts, according to a spokeswoman, with exceptions for skulls or skeletons for medical purposes.)

Definitely one of the weirder calls he's ever gotten, said Port Huron police Capt. Don Porrett. The Port Huron woman who tried to sell the mummy, Lynn Sterling, told police she was doing so for a friend who found it while tearing down a school building in Detroit.

"He claimed he'd had it 30 years," Porrett said. "Where do you keep a mummy? Does that go back with the Christmas decorations, up in the attic?"

The medical examiner's office contacted a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University. Norm Sauer said he'd never seen anything like it. It was the body of a 7- to 9-year-old child, dissected with the organs removed and preserved with salt and sugar.

His graduate assistant, Kristin Horner, had by strange coincidence once seen the Burns collection and immediately recognized it as one of the 200-year-old Scottish cadavers.

So they're sending it back to Maryland -- once all the paperwork is taken care of, to make it legal. One more dead body, just in time for the bicentennial.