Is it surprising that dissecting human cadavers is the ethical thing to do?

For prospective pre-med students looking for an undergrad institution: the UMM biology discipline just approved a change to our anatomy class. No more cats to dissect, no more mink, no more fetal pigs. Instead, we’re going to have two human cadavers for all anatomy instruction. I know, that sounds strange, but it means we won’t be killing a large number of small mammals to teach the course anymore, and instead will use voluntary donations of individual large mammals that died of natural causes. So it’s actually more ethical, and it means our pre-health profession students will get a more thorough grounding in human anatomy.

I’m mentioning this because I’m predicting it might increase our pre-med enrollment, so I’m trying to influence the outcome. No, I don’t have any money riding on it. I wish we could teach more comparative anatomy, but at least with this approach we won’t be killing any animals in this course.


  1. says

    Donating your body to science is a good inexpensive way to get rid of it! Usually you wind up getting rendered to little bits and tossed; no expensive funeral. Just make sure people are able to grab a lock of hair or a fingernail or whatever to celebrate with (or use the DNA to reconstitute you).

  2. hemidactylus says

    Well for premed students intimate acquaintance (ummm…that came across creepier than intended) with a human cadaver would be ideal. Pretty much did Darwin in didn’t it? In human anatomy I dissected a cat which is kinda remotely similar to people (but not really).

    But what about pre-vet students? Comparative anatomy (where I dissected a cat, mudpuppy, and dogfish) would be better. Vets would anticipate more diversity of systems in their profession. No people.

    I recall much pickled diversity was eagerly studied in a vertebrate zoology course I took. The smell of formalin in the morning…victory!

    Helped out on a rather disgusting green turtle necropsy once. May have had fibropapilloma affliction. Can’t recall. The hissing sound as the innards sanctum was exposed can give an approximation of the “wonderful” smell. It was fascinating though aside from that. Rather have done that than get anywhere near a decomposing human.

  3. microraptor says

    hemidactylus @4: Darwin was done in by getting a first-hand look at 19th Century surgical procedures, not dissection.

  4. says


    (but not really).

    Sure a cat is “kinda remotely similar” anatomically speaking. I’d even just say “similar”. Nearly all the same bones in nearly all the same places. A few crucial ones have a different joint orientation or a different shape leading to, for instance, resting limbs pointing in a different direction in a cat than in a human. The foramen magnum has a different location on the skull, but it’s still the foramen magnum, etc.

    As a result of the bones being so similar, the muscular system is also similar. You still have to have abductors, adductors, etc. right? They might come in different sizes to make a cat most proficient at different kinds of movements, but those would be similar as well.

    I can imagine that they might have a gland or two in the digestive system that we don’t have given their carnivorous diet, and we might have a gland or two that they don’t have in the brains, since our brains are pretty derived from our LCA with carnivora, but we still have trachea and esophaguses and stomachs and intestines and livers and hearts and lungs. There have to be lots of similarities across placentals, and cats will be more similar than even most other placentals (since bats are the most species-rich of all mammalian clades and they are more different from us than cats).

    So go nuts. Ditch the qualifications and recklessly assert that cats are anatomically “similar” to humans. I’ll back you up.

  5. Becca Stareyes says

    Actually, if I recall, our local university (in Nebraska) has a dedicated animal science program that the pre-vet students often major in; I don’t know what overlap they have with the biology majors. So if you have time for one mammalian dissection in the biology program, a human would work, and animal science students might have a dedicated course on comparative anatomy focused on pets and livestock. (Given the animal science program is in our agricultural college, not arts and sciences.) If it’s an elective for biology majors, that would also let the other students get access to it for their major.

    That way, the dead small mammals would be going towards the students who most need to know what a pig’s insides look like.

  6. hemidactylus says

    Crip Dyke:

    I tend to be a splitter on some things more than others. Sure cats and humans conform to the general vertebrate archetype, but if you were to need elaborate medical help and the person you went to said they had only practiced up until now upon cats, with a high success rate, would you be concerned?

    Cats ears are different. They have different carnivorous dentition (dental formulae differ). More physiological but cats are obligate carnivores. They have retractable claws and lack our thumbs. Sagittal crest. Long expressive tails. Whiskers. Funny noses. Eyes with tapetum lucidum and nictitating membranes. More vertebrae.

    But not special creation differences.

  7. says


    if you were to need elaborate medical help and the person you went to said they had only practiced up until now upon cats, with a high success rate, would you be concerned?

    Oh sure. I just thought “kinda sort similar (but not really)” was excessively negative given how much we do have in common. We are talking about undergrads, not all of whom will be pre-med (though PZ predicts some will, and more in the future with this new policy). Some of those are going to go on to be paleontologists and veterinarians, and I’m sure you would be equally concerned taking your pet to a vet who had only ever studied humans.

    Shorter me: Grad school has different requirements, but Homo and Carnivora are similar enough for undergrad intro work.

  8. wzrd1 says

    @10, to be thorough, I’d go with cat, fetal pig (well, if someone wants to go whole hog, bless that mighty maniac!) and human.

    When I’m done with this body, students are welcome to admire its contents to their hearts content, then toss it into a body farm to study chopped up human remains decay. I’d rather be fertilizer than soap deep underground. ;)

    My alternative, should science reject my remains being gifted as a joke gift is to have my remains digested, spread over a trail segment, with a sign at the far end, “You have just passed through the wzrd1 memorial poison oak patch, we hope that you’ve enjoyed your stay. Please, come again soon!”.

  9. fusilier says

    I told my (allied health program) students that I was going to donate my cadaver to the program, and have a tattoo saying “Yes, this will be on the test.”

    fusilier, RETIRED Associate Professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology

    James 2:24

  10. davidc1 says

    @2 Over here in GB there are certain conditions that have to be met before they will accept a dead body .
    I think having undergone an operation will rule you out ,and they tell you that it is not a cheap form of getting rid
    of your body if you don’t want to cough up the £5,000 + a funeral costs over here .
    Don’t ask me how i know ,hahahaha .

  11. says

    I want to donate my corpse to a body farm because my preference is to have it left in the open to feed scavengers and decompose naturally (pumping bodies full of chemicals to slow decomposition is a very strange thing to do).

  12. magistramarla says

    My husband was pre-med when we were first married. He brought the cat that he was dissecting home and stuck it in the freezer. I’m a cat lover, and I freaked out. Luckily for him, it was a very cold winter and our apartment had a spare bathroom. I forced him to put his icky experiment between the window pane and the screen of that bathroom. This was 43 years ago, and now he loves cats, too.

  13. mykroft says

    I remember as a pre-med student getting a tour of the human anatomy lab. Made me really look at the human body as a machine, with parts working behind the scenes (or skin) to create the illusion of a seamless whole.

  14. auntbenjy says

    drksky @ 19

    You’d probably need to look at your local med-school’s bequest program. There tend to be strict conditions, and if your laws are anything like ours, your choices can be over-ridden by your family. That said, the biggest problem our program has is that we get too many offers. If you can find it, our University made a movie a few years ago called “Donated to Science”– it’s worth watching.