Very often it is doctors or others "dedicated to the health sciences" who give their bodies to medical schools, says B. R. Bhussry, chairman of Georgetown University's anatomy department.
The three Washington medical schools -- George Washington, Howard and Georgetown -- together need 175 or more bodies a year for anatomy studies. Often they barely have enough. Howard, particularly, is having trouble this year meeting the needs of its student doctors, dentists, nurses and others in related health fields.
Students, point out the medical schools, need to examine the bodies to see the relationship of the organs and to understand how muscles, tendons, joints and blood vessels work. On occasion, says Bhussry, a doctor about to try a new or complicated operation may perform the surgery first on a cadaver.
All three Washington medical schools maintain lists of people who want to donate their bodies. Georgetown's list numbers about 2,500. The schools will send information to anyone interested in the program.
When a donor dies, it is usually the family who contacts the school. All three schools will have a funeral home pick up the body at no cost within 50 miles. It is injected at the school with a preservative and refrigerated until needed for anatomy classes. The family, if they wish, may hold a memorial service.
Depending on the number of bodies available, four to eight students use it for study for three or four months. Several times during this period, say the chairmen of all three anatomy departments, students are given "a sermon," as one puts it, on treating the body with the greatest respect.
"We at no time allow access to the bodies by unofficial persons" -- friends of students, for example, says Ernest Albert, acting chairman of George Washington's anatomy department. "We feel very strongly that these people in good conscience gave something valuable."
At Georgetown, Bhussry has directed that bodies be kept untouched for one year in case a spouse or other family member has a change of mind. If so, it is returned to the family through a funeral home.
Once the anatomy studies are completed, the bodies are cremated. The ashes may be returned to the family if that is their wish. At Georgetown and George Washington, remaining ashes are disposed of. At Howard University the ashes are being stored, says anatomy department chairman Lee V. Leak, while the three schools consider finding a common burial area.
Age, sex, or race is not a factor in whether a body can be used, says GWU'S Albert. He notes, however, that some bodies, because of advanced disease or other problems, may not be acceptable.
All three universities say they heed the wishes of a family that prefers the body not go to a medical school even if a donor card has been signed.
Because of a shortage this year, Howard has received most of the unclaimed bodies, the John and Jane Does, at the D.C. Morgue. Leak is trying to build Howard's donor list, which he says is only 225 at present.