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Relativity

Claim:   A medical school student prepares to work on a cadaver during a gross anatomy laboratory, only to discover that the one assigned to him for dissection is a relative of his.

TRUE

Variations:
  • The relative who turns up as a cadaver is most frequently a parent, one who had recently disappeared or hadn't been seen by the student for years because of a divorce.
  • Some versions of the legend involve a student's discovering that the cadaver he has been assigned to dissect is that of a friend or famous person.
Origins:   As Brunvand notes, the legend of a friend or relative turning up as a cadaver for dissection has circulated for centuries. (It has been told, for example, concerning the corpse of English novelist Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, who died in
1768.)

An actual occurrence of this legend took place in early 1982 at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, where a student discovered that one of the nine cadavers presented to the class (but not the one she was assigned to dissect) was her great aunt. (Even more coincidentally, the student and her aunt had at one time discussed the merits of donating one's body to medical science.) A different cadaver was immediately substituted by the state anatomical board.

One of our readers, a neurologist practicing in NYC, says that when he was a medical student at Dartmouth Medical School in 1958, the cadaver he and his dissection partner were given to work proved to be that of his junior year French professor. He requested a change and was assigned to another cadaver.

Last updated:   30 June 2011

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Sources:

    Bronner, Simon J.   Piled Higher and Deeper.
    Little Rock: August House, 1990.   ISBN 0-87483-154-7   (p. 160-161).

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 97-102).

    Hopkins, Lauren.   "Cut Up."
    The Hub [University of Oklahoma].   12 September 2007.

    Mitchell, Lisa.   "Familiar Faces."
    Omni.   November 1982   (p. 146).

    Salter Jr., E. George and Clarence E. McDanal, Jr.   [Letter to the Editor].
    Journal of the American Medical Association.   16 April 1982   [Vol. 247, No. 15]   (p. 2096).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nasty Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983.   ISBN 0-00-636856-5   (p. 47).