The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corpse selling and stealing were once integral to medical training

A recent Colorado case highlights both great strides since the 19th century and unresolved issues

A collection of human skulls and skeletons on display at a 2001 Harvard University exhibition in Cambridge, Mass. (William B. Plowman/AP)
6 min

On July 7, a jury found a Colorado funeral home operator guilty of selling the remains of unconsenting clients’ deceased loved ones to medical purchasers. The convicted trafficker, Megan Hess, promised services to grieving families, including cremations, that never happened. Instead, her funeral home opened a side operation called Donor Services, which sold bodies to hospitals and medical schools that were unaware the remains were stolen.

While shocking and seemingly uncommon, this story exemplifies a once-normal practice in U.S. medicine. From the founding of the first U.S. medical school in 1765 into the 20th century, medical faculty and their agents routinely trafficked in stolen human remains to stock their dissecting rooms with cadavers and museums with objects made of human remains.

Before laws regulating the donation of bodies to science, physicians obtained these remains from the socially vulnerable, most often targeting impoverished Black and Native American people. Moreover, some of these remains were even used to “validate” white supremacy by creating hierarchical, race-based skull collections. This practice and its legacies still reverberate today as museums grapple with what to do with such collections and medicine remains buffeted by ingrained racist stereotypes that affect patient care.

Rare contemporary cases such as this serve as a profound reminder that nothing less than dignity in death is at stake in having a highly regulated market for human remains. Likewise, they draw a spotlight to early American medical schools’ legacies of embracing classism, colonialism and enslavement.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians considered dissecting a cadaver an important rite of passage. They argued that having access to cadavers was essential to having medical schools that could compete with European ones. For example, public hospitals in Paris had easy access to cadavers, making them the envy of the transatlantic medical world. Faculty at elite U.S. schools had trained there, too.

They also saw human remains and skeletal casts as essential to effectively teaching and documenting racial science, which argued that there were five separate racial groups — which were perhaps even separate species — distinguished by faulty measurement of crania. White people stood atop the hierarchy.

They stored remains in racial science and general anatomical collections maintained at university museums, collecting thousands of such pieces. These collections existed at schools ranging from Harvard University to the Medical College of South Carolina.

The problem was that the practice of acquiring cadavers aroused considerable public enmity in the United States. In the spring of 1788, violent protests broke out in New York City when it was discovered that students at the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons (the precursor to Columbia University’s medical school) had stolen the bodies of working-class Whites for dissection. An editorial writer in New York’s Daily Advertiser tried to assuage the outraged, mostly White crowd by using racist reasoning, claiming that only executed criminals and “productions of Africa” were being dissected. If this were the case, the editorialist asserted, “surely no person can object.” The editorial reflected the tactic that medical schools and their allies adopted to defend such practices: dividing and conquering along racial lines — even though, in reality, they acquired disproportionate amounts of the bodies of the impoverished of all races, not just Black people or the executed.

Privately, anatomists grumbled about how superstition and religion stood in the way of passing laws that created legal routes for schools to obtain cadavers. But the state of public opinion meant the best medical schools could get were secret arrangements with city governments to obtain bodies from the potter’s field, or public cemetery, which housed the bodies of the indigent of all races.

In New York, anatomists and the city had a clandestine arrangement. The city maintained two graveyards, with the remains of the poor without loved ones going in a plot secretly designated for theft. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the mayor arranged, without the public’s knowledge, to give the bodies of the deceased poor to local anatomists. The city even hired security for the potter’s field to ensure that only authorized thieves exhumed the dead.

Sometimes, private cemeteries, seeking financial gain, also routed bodies to medical schools. In 1860, for example, for a price of $7, Harvard’s medical faculty purchased a recently deceased Native American man’s remains from the director of Mount Hope Cemetery. Harvard anatomists saw the Native man’s remains as evidence of innate racial differences and wanted a cast of his skull for their anatomical museum.

Over the 19th century, medical faculty and their political allies slowly convinced the mostly White male voting public of the need for dissection in medical education. In 1831, Massachusetts became the first state to pass an anatomy act that created some legal channels for schools to obtain bodies — even as Harvard continued to also use extralegal routes. In 1883, Pennsylvania passed a similar law.

This regulation of the use and trafficking of human remains has dramatically reduced the nonconsensual use of bodies for scientific purposes. Cases like the funeral home in Colorado are much rarer in the 21st century than they were in the 19th. For their normal operations, medical schools no longer rely on stealing human remains.

That being said, this history still reverberates in 2022, both through the persistence of racial medical stereotypes — some of which are legacies of the racial theories tied to the collection of bodies in the 19th century — and in the extant collections of unreturned and often unethically sourced human remains. Recently, Harvard announced that its various museums contained the remains of more than 20,000 humans, many of which were collected during this period with few regulations. Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania recently made two startling admissions. First, it announced the planned repatriation of the Morton skull collection — more than 1,000 skulls collected in the Antebellum era meant to prove that humanity was divided by race into five species. Second, shock ensued when the remains of children killed in the 1985 MOVE bombing were found in a drawer at the Penn museum.

In short, although medical professionals have made great strides in regulating their use of human remains, the legacies of systematic corpse theft remain unresolved. Likewise, many of the problematic racial ideas these collections reinforced still haunt aspects of medical practice today.