Yale Medical School

Yale Medical School (Courtesy medicine.yale.edu / April 3, 2013)

One dark January night in 1824, several men crept into a West Haven cemetery. They dug up the grave of a newly buried 17-year-old farmer's daughter named Bathsheba Smith and carried her body to Yale Medical College for dissection.

These students or "resurrectionists" tried to cover the traces of their crime, but it was quickly discovered. Suspicions immediately focused on the college. A constable named Erastus Osborn found Bathsheba's remains in a shallow pit beneath paving stones in the school's cellar. The result was a riot and a two-day siege that nearly spelled the end of Yale's efforts to train future doctors.

Today, medical students at Yale University and other Connecticut schools are still dissecting bodies to learn firsthand about human anatomy. The great difference is that all of those cadavers have been donated, either by people who arranged for the donation before their deaths or by their families.

The man in charge of Yale's anatomical donation program for the past 26 years is named Philip Lapre, and he's keenly aware that lots of people still get a squeamish feeling when they hear about bodies being cut up by med students.

"Everyone is there because they wanted to be," Lapre says of the bodies undergoing dissection for the purposes of educating future physicians. "It's very important that people know that."

"We refer to these bodies as 'donors,'" Lapre adds. "We teach the students that respect of these donors is paramount."

Yale accepts between 60 and 70 bodies a year. UConn's Health Center uses about the same number annually, according to Christine Thatcher, the center's director of medical education. And Quinnipiac University, which has only recently opened the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, is reportedly attempting to secure 40-50 cadavers a year for its students.

All those schools emphasize that those donated cadavers are treated with care and respect.

Once upon a time in Connecticut and most other states, the only bodies legally available to medical schools for teaching purposes or anatomical research were those of murderers who were legally executed. The problem in the 1700s and 1800s was there simply weren't enough criminals being hanged to satisfy the growing scientific needs of educational institutions and physicians.

That's where the "resurrectionists" or grave robbers came in to play. Their activities infuriated the general public, who detested the idea of their loved ones being stolen from their resting places and chopped up. There were riots as early as the 1760s, and they continued into the second half of the 19th century in places that included Philadelphia, New York City, Hartford and Cleveland.

Eventually, states recognized the need for some system to supply medical schools with a sufficient number of legally obtained bodies. Laws were changed to allow people to donate their bodies, or the bodies of their loved ones, to medical teaching schools and research institutions.

Connecticut has a variety of laws covering donations of bodies to colleges and universities for teaching and research purposes.

In this state, a person can offer his or her body by signing up with a "donor registry," in a will, and (if a person is suffering from a terminal illness) by telling at least two adults about his or her desire to become a body donor. Family members, close personal friends or guardians of a person who has died can also legally donate that person's body.

There are also some major restrictions, such as forbidding the donation of a body of a person who died from an infectious disease.

Thatcher and Lapre say their institutions also decline to accept bodies of people who died outside Connecticut, even if they were state residents and wanted to be body donors.

Lapre says there's no law against taking donated bodies from out of state. In fact, Jim Casso, head of Quinnipiac's body donation program, says his school is planning to initially get 26 cadavers from the Albany Medical Center, at a cost of $3,000 each, while Quinnipiac gets its body donor program going. (The word "cadaver" is usually defined as a body intended or used for dissection.)

But there are regulations governing the transportation of dead bodies across state lines that can make it more difficult for schools than simply taking only in-state body donations, according to Lapre.

Universities and colleges normally pick up all costs involved with a donated body, including its cremation after dissection.

For some families, avoiding thousands of dollars in expenses for private cremation or burial could be a factor in donating bodies to medical schools. But Lapre doubts such concerns play much of a role in most cases.

He says most often a body is donated by someone with ties to the medical and teaching professions, or to a particular school or hospital. "They're usually someone interested in education or interested in helping other people," Lapre says.

At the close of every academic year at the UConn Health Center, Thatcher says, there's a memorial service put on by first year students for the donors and their families. There is music and poetry and students relate their feelings about the people they've been working on, and family members are invited to speak.

Lapre says Yale does its own student memorial service for donor bodies to be cremated. The ashes are then buried in a Yale-owned plot at New Haven's Evergreen Cemetery or returned to the family.

There are now alternatives to actually cutting apart a cadaver to learn about the human body. Schools can buy extraordinarily detailed plastic models that reproduce every organ, and there are marvelous computer programs that are extraordinarily accurate.

Thatcher says her school is now looking at some of those computer programs, but she doesn't believe they can ever replace the experience of a student examining the insides of an actual human body.

Lapre has the same opinion. "You can't replicate the real thing," he says. "Most of these students have never touched a body in that way before."

That need to understand exactly how the body works, how it's put together and to be able to work within it is essentially the same today as it was back in 1824 when those guys carried Bathsheba's body back to Yale.

Yale's infant medical school survived that incident, and the mob of hundreds of angry and armed citizens calling for its destruction, only after the state militia was called out to restore order.

According to accounts of the disturbance, the students involved in that body theft were never caught or prosecuted.