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About Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach:
Acclaimed journalist Mary Roach’s bestselling book Stiff offers an inside look through the through the weird world of human cadavers. This globe-spanning story is deeply informative, surprisingly funny, and occasionally disgusting.
These “superheroes,” as Roach refers to them, brave high-speed car crashes, gunshots, decomposition in the sun, and other indignities all in the name of advancing science and making life better for the living.
The summary and analysis in this ebook are intended to complement your reading experience and bring you closer to a great work of nonfiction.
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Summary and Analysis of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Based on the Book by Mary Roach
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
In this opening section, author Mary Roach explains a little about herself and why she decided to dedicate an entire book to a topic that people usually consider taboo — if they choose to think about it at all. After years of reporting from the far ends of the Earth as a travel journalist, Roach realized that lesser-explored areas of science could be just as fascinating and intimate. She points out that society owes a huge debt to cadavers, which are shot, cut, dropped off buildings, and otherwise disfigured in all sorts of creative ways so that science may be advanced and human life may be improved.
In this section, Roach hints at the book's narrative style, a combination of reporting and research with first-person commentary, in order to guide the reader through the subject at hand.
Need to Know: What happens to cadavers may make us squeamish, but it is also fascinating and important.
Chapter 1: A Head Is a Terrible Thing to Waste Roach begins her journey by observing a face-lifting seminar at an unnamed southern university medical center. A group of plastic surgeons have paid $500 each to perform face-lifts on human heads. Roach finds it a bit distasteful that cadavers (which are in short supply) are being used for purposes of vanity, but she concedes that the more training surgeons have — even plastic surgeons — the better off their patients will be.
In fact, most surgeons' first operating experiences are on living humans, which has no small number of drawbacks for the patient. There is a growing movement, however, to get more surgical residents operating on cadavers so that by the time they touch living human flesh, they already have some experience cutting bodies.
Need to Know: When Roach first enters the seminar and observes a group of forty human heads sitting on a table, she is taken aback by the grisly scene. She eventually concludes that the setup serves a noble purpose. Literal hands-on experience is invaluable to surgeons, no matter their operating specialty. The more opportunities they have to work with cadavers, the better their outcomes will be when they take their scalpels to living humans.
Chapter 2: Crimes of Anatomy
In her next stop, Roach attends a memorial service for the cadavers at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical School. It is a somber affair that radiates respect and appreciation for the humans who sacrificed their bodies to help other people. This present-day story provides the setup for a dive into cadaver history, which is impressively sordid.
Until recently, cadavers were almost always acquired by using the bodies of executed criminals or by robbing fresh graves (i.e., body snatching). With the exception of the bodies of executed murderers, it was illegal to dissect human cadavers in England until 1836, a reflection of the popular belief that dismembered bodies would be unfit to enter heaven. As the number of medical schools in England increased, the cottage industry of cadaver acquisition predictably expanded. In the most shocking instance of cadaver-dealing, an infamous duo named William Burke and William Hare acquired more than a dozen men (involuntarily) for dissection from Hare's boardinghouse in an Edinburgh slum in the early 1800s.
Need to Know: Access to good cadavers is essential for medicine, which partly explains the explosion in body-snatching cases during the dawn of the scientific era in England. When opportunities for dissection become available, medical knowledge advances in kind. However, all parties — doctors, patients, and cadavers — benefit when human bodies are available legally.
Chapter 3: Life After Death
On a quest to learn about natural human decay, Roach visits the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility, a truly one-of-a-kind place with a mission to observe how bodies decompose under various scenarios. Researchers have "buried bodies in shallow graves, encased them in concrete, left them in car trunks and manmade ponds, and wrapped them in plastic bags," she writes. By exposing cadavers to various environmental factors and studying the results, the facility staff is able to provide critical information to investigators looking for clues that may reveal a killer or convict a suspect.
In the second part of the chapter, Roach visits a mortuary school in San Francisco. She watches students prepare and embalm a seventy-five-year-old man who had been dead for three weeks. The process includes cleaning the exterior of the body, and the inside of the mouth and nose, and shaving the man's face. The future morticians then run embalming fluid through the cadaver's arteries, which results in an almost lifelike appearance.
Embalming took off during the US Civil War, when the number of deceased soldiers requiring transport literally overwhelmed quartermasters. Abraham Lincoln's body was embalmed before making its way from Washington to Illinois, advertising the process to American citizens who came to pay their respects.
Roach concludes, however, by noting that even embalming cannot save a body from decomposition. In the end, "we are biology."
Need to Know: Decomposition is a stinky, sloppy, sticky, gross process — and every last one of us will succumb to it. As much a part of the natural world as brain-eating amoebas and kangaroos, humans are made up of elements that will someday return to the earth. At her visit to the University of Tennessee, Roach gets at wide-eyed (and closed-mouth) view of the biological spectacle that kicks off after we die.
Chapter 4: Dead Man Driving
Roach examines the lives of impact test cadavers, which provide critical information to car manufacturers, including how different types of crashes affect the human body and what the best ways to protect against them are. She visits the Bioengineering Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, which has been researching the impact of crashes since 1939. We can thank these cadavers for responsive windshield glass, collapsible steering columns, and recessed dashboard knobs, among other lifesaving and injury-preventing innovations.
The usefulness of crash test dummies is limited; they can measure force, but they cannot show researchers how a crash affects an artery or major organ. Animals have occasionally been used as "test dummies." Because of their anatomical similarities to humans, pigs and baboons are preferred, although the data they provide is incomplete. Baboons are still used for pediatric impact studies, however, because of the taboo of using child cadavers. Roach seems to support the measure, given that "the need for data on children and air-bag injuries has been obvious and dire."
Need to Know: So many safety features in cars are a result of the hard work of impact test cadavers, which are subjected too all sorts of crash scenarios in a lab. In fact, driving used to be significantly more dangerous before this type of research. Cadavers are much more useful than dummies, because they reveal how a crash will harm a human body, not the simulation of one.
Chapter 5: Beyond the Black Box
To learn about airplane-crash forensics, Roach travels to Carlsbad, California, to interview Dennis Shanahan, a prominent injury analyst whose primary job involves appraising car customers' injury claims on behalf of car manufacturers. To do this, Shanahan reviews drivers' injuries and determines how — and if — they happened.
He has also lent his expertise to airline accidents, most notably TWA Flight 800, which blew up over the Atlantic in 1996. To determine what exactly happened to the plane — was it bombed, downed by a missile, or something else? — Shanahan pored over the injuries of the Flight 800 passengers, known in aviation circles as "human wreckage." Their wounds provided him with clues that helped him piece together a theory about the accident.
If, say, a bomb caused the accident, some of the recovered bodies would have had fragments in them, and the corpses of those closest to the detonation would be less intact. If a missile had downed the jet, bodies would have shown telltale burn marks. In the end, Shanahan's observations — signs of "extreme water impact" — helped corroborate what investigators concluded: Faulty wiring had ignited one of the plane's fuel tanks and caused an explosion.
The real business of injury analysis began in 1954, when two British airplane crashes were investigated by Sir Harold E. Whittingham. Once bombing had been ruled out, Whittingham subjected a group of guinea pigs to an extreme drop in air pressure in order to study the effects on their lungs. The results did not match the organs from the cadavers recovered from the crashes. The final series of tests, also carried out with guinea pigs, proved out the theory that mechanical failure caused "extreme water impact" in each case.
Need to Know: By expertly investigating transit-related tragedies, accident investigators solve the puzzle of disasters and help prevent future mishaps. The evidence that forensic investigators uncover after transit accidents often prompts new safety procedures and designs. It is ironic that it may take a tragedy to prevent a tragedy.
Chapter 6: The Cadaver Who Joined the Army
Here, Roach investigates the use of cadavers in ballistics research. Various government agencies and defense companies use cadavers to learn how munitions and explosives affect the human body. The motivations of these studies are often completely contradictory. Some organizations, like the Lower Extremity Assessment Program, are trying to develop more effective body armor, improve the safety of nonlethal bullets, and strengthen mine-clearance boots in the name of saving lives, whereas others work tirelessly to maximize "stopping power," the clinical term for a bullet's impact on a human.
Yet again, Roach is reminded of the challenges in obtaining cadavers. For various reasons, many donors' families are uncomfortable with the remains of their loved ones going through something like getting blown up in a land mine or shot in the face, even if doing so has humanitarian benefits. In response, some researchers have taken to using gelatin-based molds that replicate parts of the human body.
Need to Know: US taxpayer dollars have been spent on things like shooting guns at cadavers, and Roach is entirely okay with this (and thinks you should be, too.) Ballistics experiments on cadavers can help protect US military members and police officers by enhancing their protection — or intensifying their power.
Chapter 7: Holy Cadaver
Roach introduces readers to the debate surrounding the Shroud of Turin, the covering that many Christians believe Jesus was wrapped in after he was crucified. In an attempt to prove the shroud's authenticity, a French surgeon named Pierre Barbet conducted a number of ghastly experiments in the 1930s, all of which were meant to show that the stains on the shroud were consistent with the bleeding path of a crucified man.
At first, Dr. Barbet used cadavers to simulate Jesus's crucifixion, but then he moved on to amputating sections of the arms of healthy people who had visited him with wrist ailments. He became convinced that he had proven the shroud wrapped a crucified body.
Modern skeptics, like New York medical examiner Frederick Zugibe, have cast serious doubt on Dr. Barbet's claims. Zugibe's own (ethical) experiments forced him to conclude that the claims do not hold up.
Need to Know: Despite the attempts of scientists and believers such as Dr. Barbet to prove that the stains on the Shroud of Turin were Jesus's blood, modern science has cast serious doubt on the shroud's authenticity. Still, some devoted believers, known as "Shroudies," continue to insist that the shroud is real.
Chapter 8: How to Know If You're Dead
When are we dead? Is it when our heart stops or when our brain stops? This complicated question has vexed philosophers and medical ethicists since ancient times. From a legal standpoint (in the United States, at least), you are dead when your brain dies and you can no longer perform essential bodily functions, such as breathing, without medical intervention. But when Roach sees so-called "beating-heart cadavers," humans who are brain dead but still appear alive and have functioning organs, she reflects on our squeamishness over physical death and spiritual death — that is, death that affects the soul.
Throughout history, different cultures have claimed the location of the soul to be in different parts of the body. Today, many Americans believe that the soul is located in the heart, and as a result, they often refuse to donate the hearts of loved ones out of fear that removing the organ will have spiritual repercussions. Though she is sympathetic, Roach finds this position extremely unfortunate, given the country's enormous waitlist for healthy organs.
Need to Know: Throughout history, philosophers and religious leaders have debated what constitutes physical death and spiritual death. From a modern medical standpoint, however, death occurs when the brain dies. Brain death is also the legal standard for death in the United States. At this point, the body can no longer function without the assistance of an artificial respirator.
Chapter 9: Just a Head
In this chapter, Roach explores the history of head transplants. Back in the 1800s, French anatomists conducted gruesome experiments after the invention of the guillotine supplied the country with a surplus of heads. One physician, Jean Baptiste Vincent Laborde, connected the arteries of a living dog to a recently severed head in attempt to resuscitate the head and compel it to give some indication of consciousness.
Remarkably, the procedure actually restored some muscle function in the head. By the mid-1900s, Soviet and US surgeons were conducting actual head transplants on animals. In 1971, US surgeon Robert White successfully transplanted the head of a monkey long enough for the newly assembled animal to regain some sensory awareness.
Given the rapid advancements in neurosurgery, it is not all that inconceivable that doctors could some day perform "body transplants," as Dr. White prefers to call the procedures. Ethical and economic issues, however, make this kind of transplant extremely unlikely, at least in the United States.
Need to Know: The idea of a head transplant has long fascinated scientists and doctors. Even if it does become scientifically possible, there are multiple good reasons why it will probably not become commonplace. For one, there are enormous ethical implications of assuming an entirely different body for both the donor and recipient. Additionally, the organs in a single human body can be given to many recipients, so reserving them all for a single recipient is inefficient at best and perhaps selfish at worst. Lastly, this sort of procedure would likely be enormously expensive and not covered by insurance.
Chapter 10: Eat Me
Presaging an examination of cannibalism, Mary Roach tells a story about "mellified men," the medieval Arabian term for mummies of men who supposedly consumed nothing but honey in the weeks before their deaths, effectively turning themselves into human-size sweets to be used for medicinal purposes. The record is not clear on whether or not mellified men actually existed, but throughout history, there have been reports of people consuming human body parts and excretions for health purposes.
As Roach points out, however, prescriptions such as strips of cadaver skin, "old liquified placenta," "clear liquid feces," and "a cupful of urine from a public latrine" seem more likely to make things worse for a patient.
In the second half of the chapter, Roach recounts her trip to the Haikou crematorium in the Hainan province of China, an area that is rumored to have supplied flesh cut from pre-incineration corpses to a nearby restaurant. Roach travels to the crematorium along with a translator and interviews the director, a no-nonsense, six-foot-tall woman. The meeting is exceedingly awkward, to say the least. Unsurprisingly, the director does not appreciate the allegation that employees at her business sell corpse buttocks and other such bodily delicacies to a local dumpling restaurant.
Need to Know: Although the consumption of the body parts of the deceased was fairly common throughout the world until recently, feasting on humans for nutritional or ritualistic purposes has been rare. Ethical issues aside, the economics are not in cannibalism's favor: It is more cost-effective to raise livestock than humans. Still, a romantic and macabre fascination with cannibalism remains to this day.
Chapter 11: Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin As the harmful environmental effects and financial burdens of traditional burial and cremation become more widely discussed, entrepreneurs around the world have come to propose different solutions for disposing of human remains. For her first stop, Roach observes a process called tissue digestion, which involves "washing" corpses in a lye bath overnight. The technique results in a small stack of powdery bones that can be dissolved by touch.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Organizations of Note,
Direct Quotes and Analysis,
What's That Word?,
About Mary Roach,
For Your Information,