Posed-Mortems: The unique displays of people who donated their whole bodies to science

The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham at the University College London.  Image Credit: Ann (Helen) Devereux via Flickr.

The Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham at the University College London. Image Credit: Ann (Helen) Devereux via Flickr.

In a display case in the South Cloisters at University College London sits the “Auto-Icon” of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham (February 15, 1748-June 6, 1832) was a philosopher associated with Utilitarianism-something I had to look up. He was also a 19th century progressive social reformer who advocated equal rights for women, prison reform, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality. But Bentham’s forward thinking ideas were not limited to the living.

Bentham requested that his body be publicly dissected and left specific instructions on how body should be preserved and displayed as an “Auto-Icon.” He tapped family friend and physician Thomas Southwood Smith to carryout his last wishes. Below is an excerpt from Bentham’s will from the UCL website:

My body I give to my dear friend Doctor Southwood Smith to be disposed of in a manner hereinafter mentioned…The skeleton he will cause to be put together in such a manner as that the whole figure may be seated in a chair usually occupied by me when living, in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought in the course of time employed in writing. I direct that the body thus prepared shall be transferred to my executor. He will cause the skeleton to be clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me. The body so clothed, together with the chair and the staff in the my later years bourne by me, he will take charge of and for containing the whole apparatus he will cause to be prepared an appropriate box or case and will cause to be engraved in conspicuous characters on a plate to be affixed thereon…”

When Bentham died at the age of 84 on June 6, 1832, Southwood Smith prepared a pamphlet and invited a select group of family and friends to the public dissection. On June 9th or 10th Southwood Smith delivered a speech then dissected his friend’s body. Afterwards, Bentham’s head was removed and his body was macerated. Then Southwood Smith used an embalming technique in accordance with Bentham’s instructions, to preserve the head. Although the preservation was technically successful, the embalming left the skin stretched and blackened, which made the head unpalatable for public viewing, so a new wax head was commissioned to replace it.

Southwood Smith rearticulated the bones with wires, clothed the skeleton in one of Bentham’s suits, and padded it with straw. The wax head was attached to the vertebral column with a spike and Bentham’s Auto-Icon was seated and displayed in Southwood Smith’s consulting offices. When he closed his consulting offices in 1850, Southwood Smith gave the Auto-Icon and Bentham’s original head to University College London to display.

This was a big deal at the time of Bentham’s death in June of 1832 because: it was one of the earliest cases of a person donating their body to science, public dissection and display of remains was something only done to criminals, and it was technically illegal. In the 19th century not many people donated their bodies to medical research because of the social stigma associated with anatomical dissection. The social stigma originated with the legal system because only the bodies of executed criminals could be used in anatomy lectures as an added punishment and humiliation to the deceased. But there were not enough criminals being executed to supply all of the medical schools in the UK, so many teachers and students had to resort to grave robbing or doing business with Resurrection Men. When the Anatomy Act of 1832 passed the House of Lords on July 19th, the law allowed medical schools, anatomy teachers, and medical students to dissect donated bodies. The Anatomy Act of 1832 was in reaction to the public outrage at the widespread grave robbing and the highly publicized Burke and Hare murders in 1828. So Southwood Smith was technically committing a crime when he dissected his friend’s donated body. But times have changed, and according to the BBC, each year hundreds of people sign on to body donor registers in England.

Medical schools in the U.S. suffered from the same shortage of medical specimens and had the same problems with grave robbing. But the U.S. never passed a federal law that governs body donations. Instead many states passed legislation in the 19th and 20th centuries allowing medical schools to accept whole body donations and claim bodies from prisons and poor houses. Today there are more than 100 academic-housed whole body donation programs and a dozen for-profit and non-profit ventures in the U.S. These cadavers are used to teach anatomy, study decomposition, practice surgical procedures, and even test parachute technology.

Hundreds of thousands of people have willed their whole bodies to medical institutions and museums just in the U.S. According to Harvard Business School, an estimated 20,000 people donate their whole bodies to programs throughout the country each year. Peter Cluckey, Harry Eastlack, and Grover Krantz are among these numbers. These people stand out not because they donated but because donations are usually anonymous. In a time when demand for donations still exceeds the supply, they stand as post-mortem ambassadors of whole body donations.

Peter Cluckey

The skeleton of Peter Cluckey on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  Image Credit: Donald West on Flickr.

The skeleton of Peter Cluckey on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Image Credit: Donald West on Flickr.

Peter Cluckey (September 16, 1882-September 10, 1925) joined the Army for a second time in 1904. But two months after reenlisting Cluckey started to experience joint pain and stiffness after some horseback drills. According to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, doctors diagnosed him with chronic rheumatism. Cluckey was treated and discharged due to his disability in 1905. Over the next 20 years his doctors tried to treat his disease but they were unsuccessful. As time passed his joints fused together and he was placed in a permanent sitting position so that his caretakers at the United States Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. could put him in a chair to eat or lay him on his side to sleep. Eventually even Cluckey’s jaw bones fused together, so his doctors had to remove his front teeth to feed him.

Peter Cluckey understood that medical science knew little about his condition and that doctors could possibly gain a great deal of knowledge from his remains, so he donated his body to the Army Medical Museum, now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine. After he died in 1925 at 43 years-old, doctors performed an autopsy and discovered that Cluckey suffered from “chronic progressive ankylosing rheumatoid arthritis and spondylitis.” The museum has displayed his skeleton in a wooden chair in a glass case since his death.

Harry Eastlack

The skeleton of Harry Eastlack who suffered from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP).  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The skeleton of Harry Eastlack who suffered from fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive (FOP). Image Credit: Wikipedia

When Harry Raymond Eastlack (November 17, 1933-November 11, 1973) was 5-years-old he broke his left leg. The fracture did not set correctly and bone growths formed in his thigh muscles. Doctors diagnosed Eastlack with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a rare congenital disease also known as Stone Man Syndrome. People with this disease have a genetic mutation that causes fibrous connective tissues, like muscles, to ossify when they are damaged.

Eastlack’s doctors treated him by cutting out the bone growths, but this backfired and made his condition worse because the growths grew back worse than before. Over the next 20 years the muscles from his neck to hips ossified into thick sheets of bone and his vertebrae fused together.

Because FOP is extremely rare and doctors knew very little about it, Eastlack willed his body to science and asked that it be preserved for research. He died a few days before his 40th birthday, not from FOP but from pneumonia. Eastlack’s body was eventually given to the Mütter Museum for display but sometimes his standing skeleton travels to FOP symposiums attended by members of Eastlack’s family, orthopedic surgeons, molecular biologists, geneticists, and people suffering from this disease.

Grover Krantz

The skeletons of Grover Krantz and Clyde at the Smithsonian.  Image Credit: Anders Sandberg via Flickr.

The skeletons of Grover Krantz and Clyde at the Smithsonian. Image Credit: Anders Sandberg via Flickr.

Grover Krantz (November 5, 1931 – February 14, 2002) was an anthropology professor at Washington State University and is known as one of the first “Bigfoot academics.” He also had a long relationship with the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History because his brother worked there and Krantz worked on the Kennewick Man case, so when he knew he was dying it was a natural choice for him to donate his bones to the museum.

Before Krantz died of pancreatic cancer in 2002, he called David Hunt, the physical anthropology collections manager at the Smithsonian. Krantz told Hunt that he wanted to donate his body to the Anthropology Research Facility (aka the Body Farm) at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and then have his bones sent to the Smithsonian. However, much like Bentham, he had an odd request. Krantz wanted his skeleton and the skeleton of his favorite dog, Clyde, to be rearticulated and posed to recreate an old photo. In this picture, Clyde, who died in 1973, is standing on his hind legs with his forelegs on Krantz’s shoulders (pictured here). Clyde was such a large dog that he stood almost as tall as his 6’3” owner.

A few days after Krantz’s death in 2002, his body was sent to the Body Farm where it was used to study human decomposition. In 2003, the skeletal remains of Krantz, Clyde, another two of Krantz’s dogs, and even Krantz’s baby teeth were sent to the Smithsonian. For a few years Krantz’s bones were stored in a green cabinet and used to teach age-related changes in bone. The skeletons of Grover Krantz and his beloved wolfhound were rearticulated, per Krantz’s request, and displayed them as part of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History Written in Bone exhibit that opened in 2009.

I’m honestly torn between organ donation and whole body donation. I want to give my organs to those who need them but I also feel a responsibility to what I call the academic circle of life. Forensic scientists and doctors depend on whole body donations to further their education and to make advances in their field. As someone who has studied forensic anthropology and directly benefited from past donations, I feel like I should continue the cycle and donate my body so that future forensic anthropologists can learn something from my remains.

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8 replies

  1. i knew what breed the dog was before i even saw the picture. wolfhounds never give your heart back. and never, ever ask for theirs. (but maybe i’m biased? says the woman who’s had three so far.)

  2. As someone who did their undergrad anthropology work at the University of Tennessee and worked extensively with the Body Farm, I can attest that they they do amazing, meticulous work. So much has been added to the body of forensic knowledge because of that foul-smelling place, it truly boggles the mind. The professors are dedicated and students learn to fight back their gag reflex to do everything from picking up the bodies, setting the experiments, and even cleaning the remains by hand once the study is completed. The massive bone warehouse beneath Neyland Stadium (but also in McClung Museum) is something special to behold.

    • I did my data collection beneath Neyland. Everyone there was so helpful and kind during my week long stay. I have to say that the odor in the room where they store the collection is a bit…fragrant. But after the first couple hours I went nose-blind to it.

      • I wish I was noseblind when I work with mummies. Sadly, mummy smell always follows me home.

      • The smell of musty mummy is probably the only smell worse than the odor you get on your clothes when you work at a fast food restaurant, but I would prefer to work with mummies any day.

  3. Did you know?? Jeremy Bentham apparently invented underpants, and his auto-icon is wearing them. Just found out today. http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2015/03/30/is-the-auto-icon-wearing-underwear/

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