Cadavers are a means for students and researchers to further scientific advances
Written by
Kevin Brown
Cadaver illustration
Image By
Kevin Brown

It’s not every day someone gets to study human anatomy up close and personal with a cadaver, but at BYU-Hawaii approximately 30 students taking elementary human anatomy get that special encounter. An even smaller amount, five students, get the privilege of dissecting a cadaver each year. 

Liliana Marques Williams, an alumna of biomedicine from Portugal who dissected a cadaver earlier this year, said, “The human cadaver dissection laboratory was one of the highlights of my college experience. 

“Being a visual learner, the class was very rewarding for me because I was able to visualize a lot of the concepts I had previously learned in more theoretical classes.” 

The elementary human anatomy course, taught by Dr. Phillip Bruner, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Physical Science, requires students to combine their visual learning skills with good memorization habits. 

In conjunction with exams from class lectures, students must memorize various pinned locations of the cadaver and models used in the laboratory. According to some students, memorizing the muscles is the hardest part of the class. Dr. Bruner said students are required to know the name, action, origin and insertion of each muscle pinned on the cadaver or model in order to get points. 

He said the course is a “points game” where if students don’t put in the time to memorize everything, especially the muscle labs, they will most likely not pass the course. 

Although the course is challenging, alumni have said they are lucky to have been given the human cadaver experience, especially from such a small undergraduate university like BYUH. 

Camron Sharp, an alumnus of biomedicine from Laie, said the course prepares people for their future studies in graduate programs and was especially helpful to prepare him for dental school in the future. “Not everyone gets to do a full dissection of a cadaver as an undergraduate student. It is pretty rare.” 

Sharp, who also got to dissect a cadaver earlier this year, said having an actual cadaver is a more effective tool for learning human anatomy than by just using models and looking at pictures.  

Williams said the cadaver gives people an edge over students when they enter graduate school as most undergraduate programs have only models. “It helped me achieve a lot of the laboratory experience required to pursue graduate studies,” she said. 

Tisa Makihele, an alumna from Tonga who had the opportunity of dissecting three cadavers during her experience at BYUH, said, “The course will forever be a memorable experience. I think more undergraduate colleges should give opportunities for students to dissect cadavers. Their experiences will prepare them for medical school and real world patients.” 

Cadavers not only benefit students, but also professionals in their careers. According to National Geographic, the use of human cadavers helps surgical teams develop new medical procedures without risking human lives, and dentists can study the anatomy of heads and torsos. 

In relation to physical therapy, cadavers help visualize the musculoskeletal system, and for pharmaceutical companies cadavers allow them to test the effects of drugs on the body.  

Cadavers also take front seat as they are employed as crash-test dummies to check safety features of new automobiles before they come out into the market, according to National Geographic. 


The Cadaver Process

Although the federal government does not record the exact number of whole-body donations in the United States, researchers “estimate each year fewer than 20,000 Americans donate their bodies to medical research and training,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Makihele said BYUH acquires their cadavers by working together with the Willed Body Program from the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii. 

Those interested in donating their bodies to science must contact accredited nonprofit organizations such as university donation programs, and, unlike organ donations, age does not matter, according to 

The donor’s information is kept on file until the donor passes away. At the time of passing, another medical assessment is performed to verify the requirements of the certain program.

According to National Geographic, “Speed is critical after death. The body must be refrigerated before it starts decomposing, usually within 24 hours. In most cases, the family must make arrangements with a funeral director to transport the body and death certificate to the donation facility, where the remains are tested for infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV/AIDS, before embalming.”

The embalming process “preserves a cadaver for up to six years,” according to National Geographic. The body is pumped full of water, chemicals and preservatives, and then dehydrated over the course of three months.

Donated bodies lose their identity momentarily, and their medical and life histories remain a secret waiting to be discovered by thousands of students and researchers across the country. After the research is completed, every part of the body is returned and the remains are cremated and returned to the respected families, said Sharp. 

Whole body donations have become a cheap alternative to rising funeral costs, according to, and families can even request a letter from the research facilities stating which projects benefitted from the whole-body donation. 

Makihele said, “Thank goodness for people like [those donors] who give their bodies to science and contribute to such a great cause for everyone.” 

Date Published
September 25, 2019
Last Edited
September 25, 2019