Donating body to science ‘the last best thing,’ says prof

Hundreds of people in Canada know what’s going to happen to them after they die: they’re going back to school.

They’ve arranged to give their body to science and advance the learning of future medical students. 

17 medical schools in Canada including the University of Ottawa, University of Waterloo, University of Guelph and McMaster University in Hamilton accept body donations. 

Donating your body to science is different than donating organs, which – according to the Trillium Gift of Life Network – saw a 30 per cent increase in 2016. Organs donated usually are intended for transplants into other people. When donating your body to science, your remains are mostly used to advance the education of medical students.

Bruce Wainman, the Director of Education Program in Anatomy at McMaster University told The Morning Edition with Craig Norris there are many reasons why people donate their body to science.

  • LISTEN: McMaster University anatomy professor Bruce Wainman

“Most people are looking to do the last best thing with their life,” said Wainman. “It seems to many people a culmination of a life, usually, of generosity.”

Most people see donating their bodies as ‘the last best thing with their life,’ says Bruce Wainman, director of the education program in Anatomy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. (McMaster University)

Religious grounds?

Eileen Hipfner of Toronto had been a registered organ donor but had never considered donating her entire body to science until hearing a presentation where family members  expressed their pride for the incredible gift they had made by donating their body.

“I decided to donate my body to the Department of Anatomy at the University of Toronto, so that it could be used to train tomorrow’s physicians,” she said.

Hipfner inspired her parents to do the same. But the question of religious appropriateness came up. So the family consulted their priest about whether body donations would be permitted for observant Catholics.

“He told them that it was one of the most Catholic things they could choose to do, but their remains would have to be … interred in a consecrated place,” said Hipfner.

How is the body used?

Wainman, who was a student himself at McMaster, said he was “blown away” during his first experience in the anatomy program when he started to work with a real body instead of relying on drawings in an anatomy text book.

“Some [bodies] are used for teaching surgical procedures, which is a fantastic thing to do. Most are used for educational purposes. We also do some research on various types of things,” said Wainman.

Donations at UW are mainly used to teach anatomy to kinesiology students. Optometry and fine arts students also use “donors” in their studies. (photo provided by University of Waterloo Kinesiology department)

At the University of Waterloo, Jeremy Roth, a Senior Demonstrator for Anatomy said they mainly use “donors” to teach kinesiology students, with a focus on how muscles move the body. But they also use body labs to teach physiology to optometry students and fine arts students who are doing life drawings.

“We will have the donors dissected to show muscles, arteries and nerves that are relevant to the curriculum we’re trying to teach,”said Roth.

“So all the donors come as whole bodies and then we perform dissections to demonstrate.”

The end

Both Wainman and Roth said the students learn not only anatomy, but also about altruism and the generosity of the donor.

After the body study is completed, the remains are given back to the family if they request.

If not, the body is cremated, the ashes placed in an urn and then stored in a crypt at the university, bringing the donor’s life and death journey to a restful end.