As published as an OpEd in The Hartford Courant, March 22, 2004.

Medical Schools Depend on Donated Bodies

By Peter Deckers

Stories of the black market sale of body parts from a California medical school are alarming, and suspension of the school's willed body program pending a thorough investigation is necessary and appropriate.

Those of us at the University of Connecticut Health Center who rely on the donation of bodies to educate our medical and dental students and our physicians hope the stories out of California will not diminish donations to our carefully monitored program and those of other medical schools around the country.

Every year, about 20,000 bodies are donated. More than 100 medical schools around the country depend on those donations to teach their students the intricacies of human anatomy. Careful, respectful dissection is a defining experience, indeed, a rite of passage for all of us as medical professionals.

UConn Health Center needs about 40 bodies annually for teaching purposes. Most are used by first-year medical and dental students who study anatomy and organ systems in teams of four. The others are used to teach advanced orthopedic and surgical technique to doctors and dentists. With the rapid rate of innovation in medical care and surgical procedures, many of which are increasingly complex, this detailed anatomic analysis of the human body is an essential part of the curriculum for training health care professionals.

Careful study of these bodies gives our students and physicians a unique understanding of anatomy, one that cannot really be duplicated by books or computers. Only the actual body can give students a true sense of its intricacies: the weight of the organs, the overlapping of veins and arteries and the resistance of bone, muscle and cartilage. This careful analysis of the human body lays a foundation for students' other courses in pathology, physiology and, indeed, their entire medical education.

UConn Health Center treats the bodies donated to us with the honor and reverence they deserve. They are accepted and prepared by a licensed funeral director and embalmer. Before study gets underway, the students are introduced to the bodies at a special ceremony that focuses on the humanity of the donors and their families. When the students are through with their study, the bodies are honored at another ceremony attended by students and relatives as well as faculty members. Finally, the bodies are cremated and the ashes returned to the families or buried, depending on the donor's instructions.

Over the years, a number of laws have been passed to ensure integrity in the donation and use of bodies for teaching purposes. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, passed in 1969 and amended over the years, standardized rules among the states on the donation of bodies for the study of medicine and for transplantation. The UConn Health Center scrupulously abides by these rules.

We hope that the discouraging - in fact, illegal - activities alleged to be part of the California program will not discourage those who wish to donate their bodies to medical schools for teaching purposes. Their gift is essential to the medical and dental education that prepares our students for their professions. It is the finest act of altruism and charity, one human being for another.

Peter Deckers, M.D., is dean of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and executive vice president of health affairs at the University of Connecticut Health Center.