A number of medical schools have emerged in Zambia in the recent past. Of course one of their core courses is anatomy, which involves dissecting of human bodies.
Questions: How do these universities acquire bodies, also known as cadavers, for learning purposes? What is the law on acquiring dead bodies for medical study? What is the official Government programme on acquisition of dead bodies for medical studies?
I ask these questions because there is dead silence on this very important, yet very sensitive topic. It is seldom discussed in public yet things are happening behind the closed doors of medical lecture rooms. Dead bodies are being dissected for study purposes. It is a sensitive topic, yes, but the public is entitled to know the sources of cadavers, and must also in kind contribute to the success of the programme.
During the First Republic, there was an official Government programme of cadaver ‘donation’ which was in public domain. In schools, teachers used to invite persons interested in ‘donating’ their own corpses to register with Government. Government would then pay them in advance for the ‘donation’. When they died, their remains were immediately acquired by Government, as Government property, and donated to the only medical school at the time, UNZA Ridgeway Campus.
Perusal of the Government budget nowadays does not show any expenditure line for cadaver ‘purchase’.
So, how is Government acquiring cadavers for medical students? Is it unclaimed bodies, prisoners, vagabonds or what?
What of private universities, what is their source of cadavers?
How do these medical schools dispose of the bones and other human wastes after use?
This is an issue of great public interest which the public needs to be in the know otherwise posterity will never forgive us if we are doing things wrongly.
Elsewhere in the world, the legacy of secret cadaver operations has had a dark grisly past. Take the U.S for example, construction workers renovating an old building in Augusta, Georgia made a shocking discovery in the summer of 1989 – 10,000 bones buried in a basement under the dirt in the building.
The bones revealed a dark history – grave robbing of African-American bodies from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Markings from the bones showed that they came from dissected bodies, and the building in which they had been hidden was the former home of the Medical College of Georgia.
Known as the Old Medical College Building, it was used as a lecture hall and laboratory space from 1835 until 1913, and for these number of years, students learned about the anatomy from bodies of largely once enslaved black people stolen from graves.
According to accounts, dissection was, for the most part of the 19th century, illegal in many parts of the United States. This made it difficult for medical students to learn human anatomy, hence, colleges had to resort to the secret and illegal practice of grave robbing.
This was usually carried out by people known as body snatchers who were mostly slaves, employees, or even students of the colleges.
Such was the case in the Old Medical College Building in Georgia. Since dissection of bodies was illegal until 1887, school authorities relied on bodies from body snatchers and even kept one full-time in their apartment, according to Atlas Obscura.
Grandison Harris, a 36-year-old Gullah slave who was purchased by the medical college in a slave auction in 1852 in Charleston, South Carolina, was the main person behind grave robbing for the school.
It was against the law to teach slaves how to read or write, but the doctors taught Harris how to read and write because that would be very essential for his role.
Owned by the entire faculty of the school, Harris worked as a porter, janitor, teaching assistant and a body snatcher. With the education given him, Harris would read the obituaries and other death notices in newspapers to find out who had died and when they would be buried.
Augusta’s Cedar Grove Cemetery was then the main cemetery for black people at the time. If someone was to be buried, Harris would, late at night, take his cart, sack and shovel.
“He would quietly go into the cemetery and find the grave. He would look and remember how everything was and then dig down to the body. If the body was in a casket, Grandison would break into the end of the casket. Then with a firm grip, and strong-arms he would pull the body out. He would then put the body into a bag and load it on his cart. Grandison Harris would then put everything back on the grave, in its original position. People could not tell the grave had been tampered with. At that time, he would roll the cart back to the Medical College on Telfair Street. The bodies would be dissected and used to teach the students about the human body,” writes augustagahistory.com.
Even though Massachusetts passed a law in 1831 that allowed the state’s medical schools to acquire bodies that belonged to those who died in prison, the poor, or the insane, graves of black folks were still robbed.
It is not known if the bones found in the chapel that housed the school was reinterred. What is documented is that the bones from the Medical College of Georgia were laid to rest in a mass grave at the Cedar Grove Cemetery in 1998.
The VCU community created the East Marshall Street Well Project to encourage a continuous study of the remains.