Sally Carter: A film premiere at the Hunterian Museum

I headed to the Hunterian Museum in London to see the UK premiere of a film about donating bodies to medical science. It was raining, no red carpets were to be seen, and rather than thin people in high fashion, the only skeletal creatures on show really were skeletons. I wasn’t expecting a great evening, but I was wrong.

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons is an amazing place. I’ve never seen so many pickled, dissected, flayed, and displayed dead people and animals, and their parts. The setting was appropriate though, given that many of the stars of the film were, well, dead.

The 78 minute documentary Donated to Science was introduced by Professor Susan Standring, anatomy development tutor at the Royal College of Surgeons. Paul Trotman, a New Zealand doctor and the film’s director, was also there.

The film contains interviews with people who had decided to leave their bodies to the Otago Medical School, New Zealand—where Dr Trotman studied. They gave their permission for their bodies to be filmed as they underwent two years of dissection by medical students. The donors’ relatives, the medical students, and their teachers are also interviewed. Nobody was paid to be in the film.

It’s a fascinating look at not just what happens to the dead, but also the effect the fate of their bodies has on the living—their grieving relatives who have no body at the funeral and the medical students who take the body to bits.

The donors were all older people who had thought hard about their decision. Their testimonies were moving and funny. One says, “I think that I’ve had a pretty good body. It’s never let me down. Apart from the lead poisoning, and now the cancer, I’ve never really had anything wrong with me.”

Their relatives all seemed to respect what the donors had asked to be done, but some still found it difficult. One woman whose aunt had donated her body said she had a fear of the anatomy department building because “I expected her to be in a bottle, sort of peering out.” Later on, the film shows a service held for the relatives and medical students to thank the donors, and it seemed to be a comfort for all of them.

The bulk of the film followed the students through their anatomy classes. On the first day they are hit with the stark environment of the dissecting room and its smells. One teacher talks of the “huge emotional element to dissection that is very hard to quantify. It’s to do with dealing with the dead human body—coming to terms with what a privilege it is to do that”

We see the students as they explore the areas of the bodies. We also hear what the donors thought of their body parts. “I’ve always been proud of my back,” says one, and most thought they had good, strong hearts.

And the heart was one of the organs that the students had different views on when they got to investigate it. One thought that, “it’s definitely more than a muscle,” whereas another thought, “It was only a pump.”

Similarly, with the lungs, one student described her experience with a lung, saying that, “I couldn’t take my hands off it because I wanted to keep on feeling it inflate and deflate,” but one of the lecturers found the lungs in a cadaver, “disappointing—different to the heart. In a cadaver they remind me of pneumonia-they’re heavy, sodden. In a live person they are aerated and collapsible, beautiful structures”

The same lecturer said that the bowel was an “under-rated organ,” and the students’ comments backed up this thought. One found it, “brown and smelly,” and another found it hard to cope with because she “didn’t take into account the smell.”

Hearing the students’ feelings about putting the body back together on the last day of the dissection, and their reactions to seeing the interviews with the donors are the highlights of the film for me. It’s with these scenes you see just how much these future medics have learnt about live medicine from dead bodies.

Dr Trotman and Professor Standring took questions from the audience after the screening. Dr Trotman said one of the most terrifying things he has done was to show the film to the relatives of the donors before the film was released, but they all seemed pleased with the result. The medical students were also shown the film, and they were happy with how they were portrayed.

Members of the audience talked of their experiences of relatives leaving their bodies to medical science, their own experiences of anatomy classes, and a UK anatomy teacher said he didn’t see his own students react in the same way as those shown in the film.

I hope Donated to Science gets to be seen by more people. Certainly it’s one for medical students about to take anatomy. At least it will prepare them for the smell.

You can find out more about the film at

Sally Carter is a technical editor, BMJ