In 1956, Alma Merrick Helms announced that she was bound for Stanford University. But she would not be attending classes. Upon learning that there was a "special shortage of women's bodies" for medical students, this semiretired actress had filled out forms to donate her corpse to the medical college upon her death.
As historians of medicine, we had long been familiar with the tragic tales of 18th- and 19th-century grave robbing. Medical students had to snatch unearthed bodies if they wanted corpses to dissect.
But there was little to no discussion of the thousands of Americans in the 20th century who wanted an alternative to traditional burial — those men and women who gave their bodies to medical education and research.
So we decided to research this especially physical form of philanthropy: people who literally give themselves away. We are now writing a book on this topic.