Book Review: Stiff


Imagine for a moment that you have died and donated your body to science.  Do you know what happens to your body? Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, explores the multitude of ways in which cadavers are used in medical research.  It is a fascinating book, but not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Everyone knows that cadavers are used in medical schools, because med students need to learn human anatomy.  And that’s easiest to do with an actual human.  Interestingly, the use of cadavers for this purpose is decreasing, due to emerging digital tools.  However, did you know that cadavers are also used to help surgeons practice their craft and learn new techniques?

Other uses of cadavers tend to be less likely to be discussed outwardly, because people tend to get more squeamish, when the cadavers are subjected to violent acts.  These include research of auto safety devices; real life crash test dummies, if you will.  Over the years, safety improvements have significant lowered the death rate in car crashes, so now cadavers are used to study the impact of non-fatal injuries.  As Roach put it in the book, if you died in an accident it didn’t matter if you also shattered your ankle.  But if you live, suddenly you have an interest in how your ankle fares.

They are used for research on safety devices like bullet proof vests and footwear that is better able to protect your feet and legs from mines and other explosives.  Forensic science is another area where cadavers are really helpful.  If we are better able to understand how and under what conditions bodies decay, then forensic analysts can better estimate how, when and where someone died.  This can be the key to solving a crime.

Stiff explores organ transplants and what happens when you agree to donate.  It also documents some pretty far-out research in the last couple hundred years.  This is probably the most squeam-inducing part of the book.  Head transplants, and what happens after someone is decapitated are explained in detail.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…  You could always skip that chapter, but you won’t.

Roach does have a morbid sense of humor, which of course is necessary for a book of this subject.  Yet she speaks of the cadavers she “meets” with a respectful dignity, aware of the gift that they have given to society in death.  It is well researched and well-read (I listened to the audio book) by Shelly Frasier, and Stiff enlightened me on several areas of research that I knew nothing about.  Well done.  Perhaps just don’t read it at meal time.

4 stars. 

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Stiff

  1. This remains one of my favorite books of nonfiction and Mary Roach is a favorite writer along with Susan Orleans. Their curious minds and gifts for storytelling set me on fire. STIFF actually led me to tell my whole family that when I die, I want to be composted – or what is left of me after organ donation. I don’t want plastic surgeons to be learning on my face though or left to rot in a maggot field. I’d rather know something really useful was done with my body. We’ll see how that works out!

    • It was interesting as she followed the process that happens after body donation. I imagine they don’t tell the family what they end up using the body for. My uncle donated his to UCLA when he died; he had been absolutely ravaged by colon cancer. The book made me think about what they did with him; none of his organs were suitable for donation.

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