Body of Science


by Nina Gan

For those who want to be scientists but lack certain ‘facilities’, there is still a way to contribute to science and help create something new for the betterment of mankind. You can donate your mortal remains to science.

But what happens when you sign the Organ Donation Pledge Form and bequeath your body? You’d be surprised at the things science puts a body through. Here are examples of how some people become even more useful when they’re dead…


In Singapore, as in other parts of the world, donated bodies are essential to medical schools for research and education. Generally, about 80% of bodies donated to science are used for anatomy lab dissections. While 3D technology has made dissections less gooey, using real humans is essential for surgeons to hone their skills.

For plastic surgery students in the USA, cadaver heads are lobbed off for hands-on rhinoplasty or wrinkle-lifting classes. Gifting your body to medical schools has its plus side: after they’re done, they would normally hold a memorial service and/or cremate the remains of your remains.


Contrary to popular belief, plastic crash test dummies are only used to measure impact in numbers. Only real humans can give researchers a more accurate result – like what a face looks like after being smashed through a windscreen – on how accidents impact the human body. Cadavers are, after all, immune to pain, with the dead actually saving about 8,500 lives a year.

Human cadavers are also used for studies on injuries from accidents – no live human would willingly submit to having their bones broken, for instance – so scientists can create better prevention methods. Or better protective equipment.


Have you ever watched CSI and wondered how they know when and how a person died? That’s because in medical forensics departments, real human cadavers in various stages of decay are studied. In the first stage, the skin simply sloughs off, inviting maggots. Then comes the bloat stage (pumped up by farting bacteria feeding off internal tissue). As the body pretty much dissolves itself from the inside, it finally leaks goo out of every orifice before leaving just the skin and bones behind. Certainly not a pretty way to go.


In 2007 NASA used three human cadavers to test the new spacesuits and seats of the Orion space capsule that’s supposed to take astronauts to the moon in 2020. Engineers used cadavers to measure the extreme forces during the capsule’s return to earth – even though crash test dummies were also used, the human bodies were necessary for monitoring the effects on actual organs.


Back in the 19th century the US Army used bodies of fallen soldiers to test the effects of various guns and bullets. Testing ballistics on human cadavers is illegal in the Commonwealth these days; they use synthetic human surrogates, which don’t accurately reproduce the effect of a real body blasted with a landmine, for instance. In 1999, the US Army used human cadavers to test the effectiveness of landmine footwear; the research resulted in a foot-saving boot. Human cadavers have also been used to test bullet-proof vests and non-lethal weapons (like air guns).


Another option for body donation is to will it for plastination at the Institute for Plastination, where the body gets preserved a la Body Worlds style. Most of the specimens will go to medical facilities, but donors can also request to be displayed for the world to see at the next Body Worlds exhibition for a shot at eternal fame.

Less than 40 Singaporeans donate their bodies to science each year, with 90% being “unclaimed bodies”. Even if being blasted, bloated, shot into space and cut up to pieces isn’t the way you want to go, just think of the lives you’ll be able to save, even from the afterlife.


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