In early January 1923, Harley Haynes, superintendent of Michigan’s Lapeer Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic (“Lapeer Home”), wrote to Rollo McCotter, University of Michigan Professor of Anatomy. He wrote to tell him that the body of Inez M., a girl who died at “seven years, four months, and nine days of age,” would soon arrive in Ann Arbor because her “parents . . . could not furnish burial.”1 Thus, as mandated by state Anatomic Law, her body would be delivered to the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) for the cost of $19.92 ($299.88 in 2020 dollars).2 There is no indication for Inez M. (or for any of the other children) that her parents’ consent was requested or that they were even informed.
That the UMMS was paying for bodies was not unusual. During the 19th century, the study of gross anatomy in US medical schools had become increasingly important. Historians have studied how and why those schools acquired bodies in general.3,4 However, the specific acquisition of children’s bodies has not been previously described. In this article, we briefly outline how one university program acquired children’s bodies. We suggest possible motivations for their use and consider areas for further scholarship.
Like many 19th-century medical schools, UMMS struggled to acquire bodies for anatomic dissection, sometimes resorting to graverobbing.5,6 In 1867, reflecting a national trend, the state of Michigan passed “An Act to Authorize Dissection in Certain Cases, for the Advancement of Science,” which authorized the delivery of “persons as are required to be buried at the public expense,” such as prisoners and the institutionalized. These bodies were to go to “any practicing physician in the state, to be by him used for the advancement of anatomical science.”7 Subsequent amendments directed bodies specifically to the UMMS and later to other schools within the state, thus encouraging relationships between universities and institutions where destitute individuals were housed. Bodies at UMMS came primarily from prisons and institutions for the mentally ill.
One of the institutions with a strong relationship to the University of Michigan was the Lapeer Home for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic. Opened in 1895 in a small town north of Detroit, the Lapeer Home was intended for “that unfortunate portion of the community who . . . have become imbecile, feeble minded or epileptic” and “[p]ersons […] who are feeble minded or so deficient as to be incapable of being educated at an ordinary school” (D. Ethridge, PhD, unpublished observations). By 1915, there were 1163 residents. Some were labeled as having developmental disabilities and behavioral problems, others were children of single mothers and poor families who were considered “backward for [their] age,” and others had been abandoned by foster parents.8 Some children were eventually released to the surrounding community; others died at the Lapeer Home.
When Lapeer residents died, the Anatomic Law allowed the Lapeer Home to transform bodies that had been “burdens of the state,” including those of children, into both monetary and educational commodities. Between 1911 and 1966, funeral home directors transported 157 individuals younger than the age of 18 from Lapeer to UMMS.2 Their ages were roughly evenly distributed from 1 to 17. The number per decade started at 19 in the 1910s, peaked at 44 in the 1930s, and fell to 7 in the 1960s, a rise and fall that traced the general rise and fall in institutions for the “feebleminded.”9 The race of the children was not recorded, but most residents at Lapeer were white. Bodies were used at UMMS in a multitude of ways, including the study of osteology, preservation in cross sections for anatomic study, and use for individual study by physicians. Some 25 records list anatomy table assignments, suggesting use for dissection in the medical school anatomy laboratory.2 In addition to helping to educate future physicians for the state, the bodies of “idiots” and “feebleminded” also provided some monetary recompense to the Lapeer School for the funds spent to house them.
Beyond their general use for osteology, dissection, or individual study, the specific demand for children’s bodies at the UMMS is unclear. Available records do not allow us to determine if there was a particular interest in childhood anatomy and pathology. However, other historical events suggest some possibilities. For one, the acquisition of child bodies was concordant with a booming interest in childhood development and welfare. Along with a general trend toward increased medical specialization, pediatrics became a growing profession.10
Perhaps a stronger explanation comes from the early and mid-20th century entanglement of eugenics and medical science. Eugenics had strong Michigan roots. Hosted in Battle Creek Michigan, the first “Race Betterment Conference” in 1914 featured both prominent UMMS faculty members and representatives from Lapeer.11
The Lapeer Home became the state’s epicenter for eugenic sterilization. All patients were wards of the state, regardless of age, and all were viewed as biologically and socially inferior.12 Their bodies were potentially revealing of the causes of their infirmity. Records do not indicate if the bodies of children from Lapeer were used specifically to study intellectual development, although we do know that many UMMS faculty were actively involved in studying mental abnormalities, and faculty noted extensive use of specimens from Lapeer.13 Some of those specimens may well have been from children. Their bodies thus could be seen as signifying what was then seen as advanced scientific research.
In a letter confirming the delivery of Inez M.’s body in 1923, McCotter, the UMMS Anatomy Professor, wrote: “It is my opinion that the Law is fully complied with by the information that accompanies the death certificate and transit permit which accompanies each body.”1 In addition to Inez M., >100 other children’s bodies from a small Michigan town made their way into the UMMS Anatomy Laboratory. These donations rose and fell in tandem with general population trends in “feebleminded” homes. The increasing use of children’s bodies for anatomic study coincides with the growth of pediatrics as a field and with the rise of ideas about eugenics. Enthusiasm for acquiring those bodies fell along with a general reduction in the amount of time devoted to teaching gross anatomy, which at UMMS fell by almost 50% from the mid-1950s to the present.14
This, to the authors’ knowledge, represents the first documented use of children’s bodies donated as wards of the state to an academic institution. The early 20th century interest in human growth and development may in part have contributed to the use of children, but the labeling of the residents of Lapeer as “feebleminded,” “idiots,” and “burdens to the state” and the role of this institution as a Midwestern eugenics location cannot be ignored.
Many unanswered questions remain, including what knowledge UMMS physicians might have gleaned from studying these bodies and whether this pattern of donation occurred in other academic teaching hospitals. Looking through the lens of today’s medical ethics, one wonders if these anatomic objects (ie, bones or wax preservation) are still in the collections today. If so, should they be returned to living relatives or buried? Unfortunately, reorganization of the UMMS anatomic collection makes it impossible to link contemporary specimens to individuals in the historic anatomic record. Practices have changed, and today UMMS is among those medical schools that use only the bodies of donors for their teaching programs.14
We thank the staff at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, specifically Diana Rae Samuelson, Malgosia Myc, and Nancy Bartlett. We also thank Bill Rhycus from the Lapeer Historical Society for allowing us to view their archives related to The Michigan State Home and Training School, Laura Fromwiller from the Marguerite D’Angeli Branch of the Lapeer Public Library, and the funeral home of S.D. Brown for donating their records to the Marguerite D’Angeli Branch of the Lapeer Public Library. We thank Bradley Lane in aiding in acquiring the legislative history of anatomical laws in Michigan. Thank you to Alex Stern, Dean Mueller, and Michael Sappol for discussing the content of this article.
Drs Lane, Vercler, and Howell conceptualized and designed the study, drafted the initial manuscript, and reviewed and revised the manuscript; and all authors approved the final manuscript as submitted and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work.
FUNDING: No external funding.
POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST: The authors have indicated they have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURE: The authors have indicated they have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.