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“The Evolution of Body Donation” by Kaitlin Cruz

Yesterday, February 10, Dr. Susan E. Lederer delivered a lecture on “Human Bodies and the State in 20th century America” as part of her position as the 2016 Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Professor at UNC and Duke University. Dr. Lederer’s lecture followed the evolution of willed body donation to medical schools in the United States during the 20th century.

To compare the attitudes toward body donation in the early 1900s to a mere 50 years later, Dr. Lederer cited the example of George W. Catt. Due to his respectable, upper class status, willing his body to a local medical school was met with great shock and appall. It was almost unheard of to voluntarily give a body for use in medical education; the vast majority of cadavers were from the poor or institutionalized. For the latter half of the 1900s, Dr. Lederer traced the threads of the popularity of corneal donation (and later other body parts) and the aversion – or even abhorrence, from individuals like Jessica Mitford – toward expensive, ostentatious funerals. Per her research, it appears that the pursuit of honor/redemption and economical motivations led to the growing attitude that an individual’s body should be put to good use after death. In the span of half a century, willed body donation transformed from an infrequent, bizarre act to an admired, incredibly popular practice – to the point of some schools needing to institute moratoriums on donation.

About Dr. Susan E. Lederer

Dr. Lederer is the chair of the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin and is also the Robert Turell Professor of Medical History and Bioethics. Her academic focus includes human and animal experimentation and medicine in America during the 20th century. Her published works include the books Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) and Flesh and Blood: Organ Transplantation and Blood Transfusion in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2008), among several articles.

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