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Unwrapping the anatomical gift: Donors, cadavers, students

Carol N Coan, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The purpose of this study is to explore the world of anatomical gifts, specifically whole body donations for anatomical dissection, and to examine the relationship between laboratory cadavers and anatomy students. This relationship is rooted in the "anatomical gift" of a body to science. As a result of this gift, the physical remains of a dead person are transformed into a liminal artifact—one that possesses characteristics of both person and thing—whose purpose is to be cut apart for scientific study. Two inherently anthropological concepts that can help us to understand the cadaver and its relationships are "the gift" and the body as material culture. Anthropology has traditionally divided the world in such a way as to separate mind, body, and material things. Yet the gift to science of a dead human body occupies material, biological, and cultural domains—and as such both challenges and sheds light on subdisciplinary boundaries. What sort of people donate their bodies "to science," and why do they do it? How do anatomy students respond to working with cadavers? What is the nature of the relationship between cadaver and student? To address these questions, I focus on the experiences of prospective body donors and occupational and physical therapy students in western Massachusetts. I combine quantitative and qualitative data, drawn from survey questionnaires completed by a self-selected sample of prospective donors and by three cohorts of OT and PT anatomy students, to contribute to our understanding of the anatomical gift, the body as material culture, and subdisciplinary boundaries. As a result of this research, several points have emerged that may be of use to anatomy students, prospective donors, and body donor programs. To further the analysis of whole body donation for anatomical dissection, I propose three lines of more specifically focused research. Such continued research would make valuable contributions to the pedagogy of anatomy. At a broader and more theoretical level, it would also enhance our appreciation of the complex relationships between persons and things, and between the living and the dead, at the intersection of human biological, material, and cultural domains.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Cultural anthropology|Physical anthropology

Recommended Citation

Coan, Carol N, "Unwrapping the anatomical gift: Donors, cadavers, students" (2008). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3325269.