The Visible Human, Prisoner?

visible human prisoner

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?

jernigan visible human prisoner

12 thoughts on “The Visible Human, Prisoner?”

  1. I knew Paul, his brother Fred and their Mother. I went to Collins Jr. High School with Paul. He was my Drivers Ed. Partner….I really can’t commitment one way or the other on “is it right or is it wrong” to have his body donated to and recorded by…..the Medical profession in the name of Science. Someone had to do it sooner or later…..I believe that is being judgmental and my Religion will not allow that…my thoughts are……what happen to him after he left School and when he joined the Army? Why did he, his brother and Mother come to Texas from Illinois? What events took place to send them to Texas and what happened in Paul’s life that caused him to do what he did…I have absolutely NO DOUBT that Paul committed the Murder,of Mr. Hale, there in Navarro County…
    But to me, Paul was a fun, caring, and seemed to be a normal person that I actually enjoyed knowing. Until he turned and committed the act of violence he did…. I felt the came way about his brother Fred……and their Mom….They were good, hard working folks!….I nevere suspected anything like this from Paul. It just didn’t make since.
    I can’t imagine taking someone’s life, any more than I can understand why Paul choose the road he did! But it sealed his fate and regardless of the outcome, two people are dead because of it. I pray he was forgiven by the Hale Family, his family and our Lord God. I found it shocking when I heard what Paul had done. I still don’t have the answers, but I do know this. Rules are set in place for every one and when we break the rules and laws governed by our lands, we must suffer the consequences, whether we agree or not! An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! So be it ! If we didn’t have rules set in place, there would be chaos!
    May God Bless!

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  3. I find it humorous that people would mix the ethics of execution to persecute this project. The members who chose Paul did not know the circumstances of his death, and merely chose the best candidate, out of many, who “donated” their bodies to science and research. There was nothing “dark” about the projects past, it isn’t as if they killed, or approved the killing of, Paul, again merely chose the best cadaver. So I approve of the Visible Human Project, and their decision.
    P.S. I am a Jernigan, though not of any known relation to Joseph Paul Jernigan.

  4. Paul was a troubled soul when he committed the crimes he paid for with his life. I believe if he was truly guilty then he really gave up his rights to what happened to his body when he was put to death. I am aware he divorced his wife while in prison (this is standard since no hope of release) and his family siblings, parents, etc… had stated when he was convicted that they did not have the funds to bury him nor did they support him during the trial and immediately after his placement in prison. It took 12 years to finally complete the end; he was found guilty and appeals didn’t change the guilty plea; if he was truly guilty–he determined himself that he didn’t deserve the choice of what would happen to his body. Also, none of us know for sure what happens to our body after we die…we think we do but only the survivors know for sure.

  5. The only reason Jernigan’s body became available for medical donation was because the state of Texas violated his fundamental human rights by killing him. Is it ethical to partake of scientific knowledge when it derives from a human-rights violation? No, absolutely not. For the same reason, we don’t cite the results of Nazi Germany’s hideous experiments on concentration-camp inmates. It’s astonishing to me that the dark origins of the Visible Human Project haven’t raised more controversy over the years.

  6. Well since that time, we have had DNA technology and we have found out that there were several convicted death row prisoners who were innocent. I think if ANYONE donates their body to science of their own free will, then great let us learn from it. However, i do believe people have rights and we should not take some of the basic rights from people because our system….says they MAY be guilty. What a slippery slope we would establish as a society if we disrespected people like that. Good day my fellow knowledge seekers.

  7. I think it’s a great idea. If someone has interfered with someone else’s civil liberties to the point of killing him, I think that person should lose all rights to his own body in return, and our society ought to be able to make any medically helpful use of it. As in organ transplants, research, etc. They sure deserve it more than innocent animals, and the results would be directly applicable.

  8. And thank you 🙂 I am planning to use your blog as an example to discuss the Visual Human Project and its relation with the Network Society in a presentation tomorrow.

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