Is it time to take out your skeleton in the closet? 

I have a skeleton in the closet.  I really do.  It is a human skeleton that I acquired when as a first-year medical student at the University of Sydney in 1981.

Back then, just about every medical student would own a half or full skeleton. They had to be real human bones as the quality of plastic models at that time were as good as useless as they often lacked many of the essential markings seen on real bones. A half skeleton was a way to save money on the costs — instead having a full set of bones, a half skeleton would be all bones except one pelvis, one set of ribs, one upper limb and one lower limb. In truth, it was more than half a skeleton.

Unless you were gifted a skeleton or purchased one from a more senior medical student or doctor, you would purchase one from the Sydney University Medical Society Bookshop.  We would briefly ponder as to wonder where they came from and the rumour at the time was that they were harvested from rivers in India. To be honest, we did not give it much further thought to it. We were naive, trusting and never considered that there could be anything sinister about the manner by which the company trading in human skeletons came to acquire them in the first place. Most of us were 18 years of age at the time and we were consumed with the excitement of coming to university and starting the medical course rather than to think about the ethics of human skeleton acquisition.

Once I completed the two preclinical years of my medical course, my half skeleton went into a box and into the closet.  It sat there for another 5 years and when as a junior doctor studying for the anatomy component of the surgical primary examinations, it was once again of use. I passed my surgical primary examinations, and it went back into the box and back into the closet.

It sat in the closet for another 25 years before I found it during a home clean out.  Some things have happened since I first acquired my skeleton.  In 1985, the Indian Government outlawed the export of human remains, and this created a market for second-hand skeletons.  Over this time, plastic skeletons have vastly improved to the extent that there is no need to learn on real human skeletons.

On re-discovering the skeleton in my closet, a number of questions came racing through my mind. Who was this person and with what sort of existence?  Did the family know of the fate of the original owner of this skeleton? Had the original owner of this skeleton or family given consent for use in medical education?  The last two questions came back at me with an almost immediate “no.” Much has been written about the illegal trade in human skeletons destined for medical education and I find it difficult to think that any aspect of this trade is absolutely above board.

Now that I have found this skeleton, what do I do with it?  Do I donate it the local medical school? Do I dispose of it somehow?

As far as disposal is concerned, most jurisdictions will have laws regarding the disposal of human remains.  One thing that should not be done is throwing it into the trash or burying it.  It would only be a matter of time before they would be uncovered to trigger off an unnecessary homicide investigation.  Most laws necessitate that the bones be handed in to a relevant authority and following which arrangements would be made for cremation.

I feel that the skeleton in my closet has done its time in medical education and it is time to put it to rest.  Further time in the closet gathering dust does not seem right to me.  That time has passed. Do you have a skeleton in your closet?

Henry Woo is associate professor of surgery, Sydney Adventist Hospital Clinical School, University of Sydney, Australia. He blogs at Surgical Opinion and can be reached on Twitter @DrHWoo.

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