Let's build a morgue

By Professor Sue Black

Roger Soames, former Cox Professor of Anatomy at Dundee University, used to sigh with exasperation and his shoulders would slump in resignation every time I burst into his office to announce with bounding enthusiasm: ‘I have just had a brilliant idea’. It is fair to say that most were utterly bonkers, a few had some latent usefulness and one or two even had merit. But you need to have at least 50 barmy flights-of-fancy before one genuine gold nugget is conceived. This is the story of one of those rare and successful ideas.

The true study of the human anatomy can only be achieved through hands-on, physical dissection of the human form. For this to happen today, donors must be prepared, in life, to bequeath their remains to an anatomy department when they die. However, in the past, we have had darker episodes where the demand for cadavers has far outstripped the supply, and nefarious individuals have resorted to despicable acts to secure the dead. This was largely resolved when we learned how to embalm and so preserve human remains for longer and, of course, when legislation made ‘body snatching’ a hanging offence! For the last 100 years and more, cadavers have been embalmed using a solution called formalin which contains the toxic substance formaldehyde. It has an unpleasant smell that is so strong you can taste it, makes your eyes sting and is mildly carcinogenic. In the early years of this millennium, the European Union began to consider a full ban on the use of formaldehyde and anatomists around the world feared the consequences for the future of the profession. Hence my ‘idea of the day’ to poor, beleaguered Roger: Let’s find something else to embalm bodies with that is not toxic, not prohibitively expensive, will preserve them for at least 3 years (our period of legal retention), be more environmentally friendly and retain realistic colour and flexibility of the tissues. 

We learned that in the post-war years Walter Thiel at the University of Graz, had experimented on preserving legs of pork following the success of his local butcher to retain the natural colour and texture of the meat, whilst ensuring that it remained edible for a long period of time. Walter felt that he could extend the same logic to human anatomy and although it took him over 30 years of experimentation, he was ultimately successful. Roger went on a trip to Graz and came back to Dundee full of enthusiasm that this might just be the way forward for anatomical embalming. We made the decision there and then, that we would be the first anatomy department in the UK to abandon formalin entirely and switch to Thiel soft-fix embalming. We would blaze the trail - we just hadn’t got a clue how we were going to pay for it. We needed to raise £2 million to build a bespoke mortuary. That's when I had another ‘idea’. 

I thought about all the crime writers who had approached me over the years to help them with the plots for their novels and I wondered if they would be prepared to pay some of that time back to us. I contacted the Doyenne of the genre, Val McDermid, and together we launched the ‘Million for a morgue’ fundraising programme. Never had the public been approached to help fund something as unusual as a mortuary but that made it all the more media worthy. Val persuaded 9 of her crime-writing colleagues to sign up to the cause. Their job was to persuade fans to vote for them, as their favourite author, via a very modest online donation. Our rationale was that whoever helped us to raise the most money, would have the mortuary named after them.

We attended book festivals, gave lectures and interviews, the authors auctioned characters in their books, we hosted dinners, we wrote a cookbook (an odd thing to publish from an anatomy department – and it was shortlisted for a European award), Stuart MacBride wrote a children’s book (The Wholesome Adventures of Skeleton Bob, just in time for Christmas), Jeffery Deaver auctioned a CD of his music. All these efforts and more allowed us to raise the money we required, and we started to build the Val McDermid mortuary.

However, the equipment we needed didn’t exist and in partnership with a manufacturer, we designed submersion tanks, lifting mechanisms and body storage racking. By 2012, the mortuary was funded and fully operational and Dundee University opened the first Thiel cadaveric facility in the UK. In 2013, we were awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for excellence in higher education, the first time such an accolade had ever been bestowed on a department of anatomy. Since that time, the facility has gone from strength to strength, helping countless other departments around the world to set up similar facilities. We have trained surgeons in new approaches, we have trialled new medical devices and we have researched areas that will benefit patients in terms of both their recovery and indeed their survival.

A rebel? A maverick? Or just a risk-taker with bonkers ideas? Most likely the latter, but I know that I only stand on the shoulders of giants who have gone before. Professor Walter Thiel and Professor Roger Soames were such men. 

personal rebellion, preservation, trailblazers