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March 20, 2014 Volume 35, No. 24

Gift of Body Program provides training for medical students

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William Miller, a director in the School of Medicine, said his decision was easy. “To be able to serve a teaching function after my spirit is gone seemed to be a lot better use of my body than scattering its ashes over Lake Michigan,” he said. Photo by Mikala Compton.

More than 2,000 people have signed up to donate their bodies to science

When William Miller thinks back to his medical school days at MU in the 1960s, he remembers his first day in the gross anatomy lab as powerful. At the time, the first-year medical student had never seen a dead person. One classmate, upon pulling back the sheet, walked out and never came back. 

But for Miller, what he learned in the lab that year was the foundation for his medical training and career as a transfusion medicine specialist. 

“I saw the incredibly complex way our bodies are put together and developed a profound respect for what evolution has created in the human body,” said Miller, medical director of Clinical Laboratories and director of Transfusion Services in the School of Medicine. 

When it came time for Miller, 74, to make plans about his body after death, it was an easy decision. 

“I had this romantic notion of being cremated and having my ashes scattered over Lake Michigan,” he said. “But that seemed rather selfish as I thought about it. To be able to serve a teaching function after my spirit is gone seemed to be a lot better use of my body than scattering its ashes over Lake Michigan.”

Miller is one of more than 2,000 people who have signed up to be donors through the Gift of Body Program in the School of Medicine. The program adds 15 to 30 names to the donor list each month and receives between 60 and 80 donations each year. Students training to be doctors, physical therapists and occupational therapists, as well as physicians and researchers, use body donations to learn basic human anatomy and to advance surgical techniques.

“Without this program and the people who donate their bodies, we can’t teach gross anatomy, which is one of the foundational aspects of medical education,” said Scott Maddux, director of the program. 

Every year, Maddux leads the 96 first-year medical students in the gross anatomy lab. Working in teams of four, students hover around donor bodies, getting their first glimpse of the body’s inner workings.

“They have the opportunity to not only learn from the donor that they’re working on, but there are also these other donors in the room, so they can see how their donor compares to someone else’s, see how different people’s bodies are,” Maddux said. 

Fourth-year medical student Kim Ingersoll said the donor she worked on her first year was like her first patient. 

“The fact that the donors have made this sacrifice is very humbling,” Ingersoll said. “It’s this yearlong gift that we get to learn from. Being able to see in real life what we’ve been learning about in books is exciting. It sets the foundation for us.”

In April, the School of Medicine hosts a Gift of Body commemoration service to allow medical students and faculty to reflect on the gift donors make. Ingersoll said she often thinks back to her donor and what she learned from the bodies in the lab. 

“There are so many things to learn about the human body,” she said. “It’s like drinking from a waterfall. These donations are an invaluable gift.”

— Kelsey Allen


For the Good of Science

If you want to donate your body to the Gift of Body Program, here are a few things you should know.

  • Anyone over age 18 can enroll with the proper forms. 
  • The family is responsible for the funeral director’s transportation fees and the costs involved to file the death certificate.
  • The body must be intact, with the exception of eye donation, and cannot have been autopsied or had major organs removed.
  • The body must not weigh more than 230 pounds and cannot have certain communicable diseases, such as tuberculosis or hepatitis, or bacteria infections present in the body at the time of death.
  • Body donations are usually kept anywhere between 12 to 36 months. Then the body is cremated and returned to the family or interred at Memorial Park Cemetery. 

For more information, go to and download a donation information packet, or call 882-2288.