Medicine’s Silent Teachers

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Without the selfless act of those who donate their bodies to science, essential aspects of medical research and education would be impossible. It is an enduring gift.

To many, the world of science is cold and analytical, but there is a real art and skill behind the practice. The donation of bodies to aid our medical advancement is something that has been going on for centuries to teach anatomy by dissection and has helped create a number of life saving techniques.

Professor Dame Sue Black, Director of the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification at the University of Dundee, and her team deal with approximately 100 donated bodies each year.At the university, she leads a team which has developed  new forensic techniques, including the identification of child abusers through vein and skin patterns.

Professor Black, who was awarded a dame hood in last year’s Queen’s birthday celebrations for her services to forensic anthropology, has previously stressed the importance of the unit’s work.

Vivienne McGuire, MBE, Bequest co-ordinator for the University of Dundee, explained: “We consider the act of donating one’s body to medical research as one of the most selfless acts. In this regard, we treat our donors, cadavers and their families with the utmost respect. The whole process is very dignified and a very onerous responsibility. Any person fortunate enough to be learning from our “Silent teachers” is left in no doubt what a privilege they have been given by their donor.

When it comes to the issue of donation bodies to reduce funeral costs, the university is keen to stress that it has no vested interested and advise people to have a back-up plan. “At the time of registering. donors are always reminded that acceptance is not always guaranteed and they are advised to have in place alternative funeral plans should this be the case. There are occasions where we have to decline the offer” commented Mrs McGuire. “This could be as the result of their cause of death – sometimes, when there has been a particularly widespread of cancer, the structures of the body have deteriorated so much that anatomical examination would not be possible. This is also the cause in person’s who have undergone a post mortem. Sometimes, it is simply because we do not have capacity for storage of cadavers”.

The donation of bodies has received a lot of public attention recently. Two years ago, Channel 5 broadcast a documentary called The Body Donors which followed  people over two years as they decided to donate their body to science. According to the documentary, around 700 people donate their body to science every year.

To donate your body

If you wish to donate your body for medical education, training or research, you should make your wishes known by completing a declaration form before you die, and inform your next of kin.The minimum age of donation is 17 in England and Wales but 12 in Scotland.

To make your wishes known you need to complete a consent form. This is available to download from your local medical school.

For further in formation on how to donate your body and for details of your local medical school, please contact the Human Tissue Authority for England and Wales or visit https://bereavementadvice.org/topics/planning-ahead/whole-body-donation

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