You’re Putting My Brain Where, Exactly?

"Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer," Michiel and Pieter van Mierevelt, 1617.

When you donate your body to science, you don’t get a whole lot of say over what happens to your parts. You might end up as a teaching tool for medical students or as part of scientific study, or your brain could be illegally handed off to a forensic experimenter — in a bucket! — while the rest of you is sold for a discount. In D Magazine, Jessica Pishko investigates the Mark Lundy murder trial and re-trial, the scientific evidence on which his convictions hinged, and the possibly dodgy provenance of the human body parts that evidence required.

Although UT Southwestern has an established system to divvy up body parts for research between various internal departments and other universities, there were exceptions. According to internal emails, Dr. Marlene Corton, a researcher at UT Southwestern who, according to her website, focuses on the female anatomy, was able to get donor tissue free of charge and without going through the official tracking system. On Tuesday, January 14, 2014, she made an email request for “fresh specimens, preferably within 12 hours” for a histology study. She also asked for a “spinal cord OR brain” for her colleague, Dr. Word. Claudia Yellott, the manager of the Willed Body Program, forwarded Corton’s requests to staff, adding that they should find one “that we know we are not able to use for much.”

The next morning at 8:20, an embalmer notified Corton and the rest of the Willed Body staff that donor 64039 was ready. “This donor can be used for the vagina sample, rectum sample, and brain without spinal cord sample.” Emails indicate that by the afternoon of January 15, Sue’s brain had been removed for Word. The vagina and rectum samples were sent to Corton, and by midnight of January 16, the cadaver was back in the cooler, where the C-1 spine was removed and placed in a blue bin for the University of Toledo, which purchased it for $800, minus a bulk discount.

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