I've written before about how the purchase of cadavers (even) by medical schools for anatomy classes was for many years a repugnant and largely an illegal transaction in Europe and the U.S., but no longer. A recent review of a book of photographs of medical students posed with cadavers reveals something about the changing cultural attitudes that have accompanied this shift. Shifts of these kinds are potentially interesting to economists because of what they might tell us about changes in which transactions are regarded as repugnant more generally.
Recent news stories have covered the practice in Asia of having students treat the cadavers as honored teachers, sometimes at ceremonies attended by the families of the deceased: Taiwanese Med Students Honor Cadaver Donors.
"A Taiwanese medical school is responding to the island nation’s shortage of cadavers for study by bringing the family of the deceased fully into the program, the Wall Street Journal reports. At Tzu Chi University, medical students meet with donors' families and even compose poems to their “silent mentors” to express their gratitude. And before they wield their scalpels, they participate in a farewell ceremony."
It turns out such ceremonies have a reasonably long history. From the English language abstract of an article in a Chinese medical journal, Anatomy cadaver ceremonies in Taiwan:
"The practice of holding annual ceremonies in honor of cadaver donors in Taiwan's medical schools has a history of nearly a hundred years. It originated in Japan, where such ceremonies have been widely held in medical schools since the practice was founded by Toyo Yamawaki, who was the first medical scholar in Japan to engage in dissection of the human body and was the author of the first anatomy book to appear in Japan, the Zoshi. The practice of holding donor ceremonies was introduced into Taiwan after the Jaiwu Sino - Japanese war, when the island became a Japanese colony. The tradition was upheld in the Viceroy's Medical School, the Viceroy's College of Medicine, and Taihoku (Taipei) Imperial University College of Medicine, and continued since the restoration of Chinese power to the present. The practice of holding cadaver donor ceremonies in institutions of medical education is intended to express respect for the donor as well as to encourage the practice of cadaver donation to the benefit of medical education."
But going further back in time, it sounds as if the Asian experience may have been quite similar to the European history regarding cadavers. Here is the English abstract of an article published in Japanese on the History of collecting cadavers in Japan
"This study investigated how and from where medical students had acquired cadavers for research throughout Japanese history. At the beginning of dissection in the mid Edo era, they cut up executed prisoners granted by the Tokugawa Shyogunate to study internal body parts. After the Meiji Restoration, the social mechanism of delivering cadavers underwent a complete transformation and they began to utilize 1) dead bodies of inpatients who had received free medical treatment and 2) unclaimed bodies mainly from homes for the aged and prisons. It was quite recently that "kentai", voluntary body donation, became common practice of collecting cadavers. Consequently the history of cadavers submitted to dissection faithfully reflects the relation between medical science and society."
I can't help being reminded of the current cautious attempts in the U.S. to encourage organ donation for transplantation, about which I blogged yesterday: Tax credits for organ donors, and medals.