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Some months back, I was invited to a bioengineering conference to speak about the public's reactions to cadaver research. The morning I arrived, I skimmed the program and noted with mild panic that below my name was a talk entitled, “Public and Media Response to PMHS.” I had no idea what PMHS meant. Clearly there had been a mistake. I considered giving the talk anyway. Once, en route to a writing conference, working madly on my talk during the flight, I glanced over at the man next to me and noted he was doing the same thing. His talk was about microtubules and “golgi positioning.” And I thought, “Wouldn't it be funny if we swapped?” Good sense prevailed, as it did this time.

I leaned over to John Bolte, the conference organizer. “John.” I pointed at the schedule. “What is this? This isn't my talk.”

John told me PMHS stood for “Post-Mortem Human Subject.” In the years since Stiff had come out, cadavers had apparently acquired a euphemism. No one's paper title that day included the word “cadaveric.” It was PMHS this, and PMHS that. It's the KFC of the impact tolerance world. I imagine it came about as a way to stay off the radar screen or avoid the scrutiny of journalists who, like me, learned to do keyword searches on the word “cadaveric.” It made me a little sad. It meant that these researchers — men and women who spend their lives trying to make cars safer — still felt defensive about their work. It meant that the same public that accepts and supports dissecting a body is unwilling to accept hitting it with an impactor. Let's look at why that is.

In the course of writing Stiff, I interviewed a researcher who had been contracted by the military to test different materials and sole thicknesses for shoes worn by landmine clearance teams. You'd think it would be a no-brainer – sturdier the sole, the safer the shoe – but you'd be wrong. Step on a landmine and the sole of your shoe becomes shrapnel. The thicker the sole, in fact, the higher the amputation. You're better off in a rubber sandal. Some slime bag from the media headlined a story, “ARMY USES CADAVERS TO TEST LANDMINES.” You can guess the rest. Anyway, in the course of our conversation, the researcher made a solid point: The difference between being blown up for science and being dissected is essentially one of time. The former happens in an instant, the later, over a semester or two. You end up in pieces either way.

Why is it that the public accepts—indeed, deems noble—using cadavers for education, but not for helping save the lives of automobile drivers or landmine clearance personnel or police or any of the thousands of other people who benefit from the lesser known contributions of the dead? Because the public doesn't understand. They don't see why cadavers are needed. “Can't they use dummies?” is the line I often hear. I explain that crash test dummies, as an example, simply measure the force of an impact. They cannot tell you what that impact would do to a human body—whether the injuries would be minor or lethal or someplace in between. Cadavers make the data meaningful. Once people understand that, they invariably accept. They even want to help. So many Stiff readers asked for information about donating their bodies to research that my publisher had me add a section to the paperback providing information about how to go about it.

Why is there still so much ignorance and misinformation about the role of the cadaver in trauma research? Because many researchers are reluctant to talk to people about it. I understand why this is so, but I think it may be a mistake. Hiding what you do makes people suspect you have something to hide. Bioengineers have nothing to hide. Their work is admirable, justifiable – and not even particularly gruesome. Allow me to plagiarize my book for a moment:

The piston…sounds a loud bang, but the impact itself is silent. UM 006 falls over, not like a villain shot in a Hollywood movie, but slowly, like an off-balance laundry sack. He falls over onto a foam pad that has been set out for this purpose, and John and Deb step forward to steady him. And that's that. Without the screech of skidding tires and fold of metal, an impact is neither violent nor disturbing. Distilled to its essence, controlled and planned, it is now simply science, no longer tragedy.

It's time to recognize the valuable and necessary contributions of the bioengineer, the trauma researcher, and the dead who make their work possible. Stand up (those who can) and take a bow.

Mary Roach is the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and, most recently, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.