My earlier post on the Pernkopf Anatomy Atlas discussed the ethical implications associated with the source of cadavers for use in medical education. And while I mentioned that medical history is spotted with such ethical controversies, modern day medical and anatomical resources aren’t without scrutiny.
The Visible Human Project, established in 1989, set out to complete a full digital library representing the anatomy of a normal adult male and female. The Visible Human Male was completed in 1994 and the Visible Human Female completed the following year. While you can find this information and more on the The Visible Human Project website, what they don’t mention is how they acquired the male and female bodies.
The Visible Human Male was a mechanic from Texas, named Joseph Paul Jernigan. On July 3, 1981 he stabbed and shot a 75-year-old man, who surprised him during a robbery. Jernigan was convicted of murder and sentenced to death on November 20, 1981. He was finally executed, by lethal injection, 12 years later on August 5, 1993. Before his execution a prison chaplain convinced Jernigan to donate his body to the Texas Anatomy Board. Jernigan had no idea that his body would become part of one of the most important anatomy resources of the 20th century; the first completely digitized human being.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM) organized the Visible Human Project. Cadavers for the project were selected from people who had donated their bodies to medical research. Soon after death MRI and CT scans were performed on these bodies, which were then frozen in gelatin. A selected committee from the NLM then reviewed the MRI and CT scans and chose the best cadaver representing the most normal anatomy, proportion, height, and weight of a male and female. The committee subsequently chose Jernigan’s body without knowing that he was an executed prisoner convicted of murder. But, the committee decided that since Jernigan had donated his body to science, there were no ethical implications against his body becoming part of the project.
So, should we judge the use of Jernigan’s body for the Visible Human Project? Would the committee have chosen Jernigan if they would have known that he was an executed prisoner convicted of murder? What are your thoughts?