Following my currently somewhat morbid theme of human death, putrefaction and skeletonisation (see Death’s Acre: Beyond the Legendary Body Farm by Bill Bass), I have just finished reading another jolly night-time book. It’s called Stiff: the curious lives of human cadavers by Mary Roach (2004, Penguin, 304 pp).
The author presents an absorbing set of tales about what happens to the human body after it has been gifted to research. Again, it might not be for the squeamish but we’re scientists, so it’s no problem!
Each chapter is devoted to a different area of research, whether it be early anatomists, crash test cadavers (or parts thereof), development of land-mine boots, assessing the Shroud of Turin, whether or not a corpse is dead and the “live” removal of organs from a brain-dead but still-beating-heart person. My personal favourite was the opening chapter about reconstructive surgery and practicing facelifts on severed heads that yesterday had had rhinoplasty – oh, the irony of someone who had always wanted a nose job but didn’t get to have one when they were alive but gets the nip/tuck works after they’ve donated their body to medical research. Plus think of the money they saved.
I enjoyed this book because it is written by a non-medic – she’s just an interested party who now has some amazing tales to tell at parties (although from experience I would suggest that she will have learnt quickly that one needs to assess one’s audience before launching into the details of a post-mortem).
I thoroughly recommend this book. It’s the sort of book that can be read a chapter at a time whilst maintaining more traditional fiction books in between times. The only problems is that at bedtime when you’re trying to distract your brain, slow it down and lull it to sleep, this book wakes it up with its interesting detail and insights into what really happens to medical research cadavers. Will I be leaving my body to medical research? I’m still thinking about it…..