Interview: Sue Black, professor

Sue Black ,Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at University of Dundee College of Life Sciences . Prof Black is pictured in the Dissecting room at the University. Pic Ian Rutherford
Sue Black ,Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at University of Dundee College of Life Sciences . Prof Black is pictured in the Dissecting room at the University. Pic Ian Rutherford
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WHEN they have built the new morgue, it will be totally different. The tanks in which they keep the bodies will be specially designed. The bodies will be on racks, four at a time, and lowered beneath the special embalming fluid for two months.

But these tanks at the old morgue underneath the dissecting room at Dundee University’s anatomy department aren’t like that at all. One of them used to be a large fish tank, the other one looks distinctly homemade. Professor Sue Black opens it and, with a green latex glove all the way up her arm, reaches in and gently stirs the brown fluid. An elderly person’s corpse slowly turns over. It’s like nothing I have seen in my life.

Intuitively, we all know the range of movements the human body is capable of, the limits to the directions in which limbs can move. But the bodies in the tank – and yes, that’s another head slowly rolling over to look sightlessly past me – hardly seem to have any. No contortionist’s legs could drift up her back so far, so easily. No octogenarian could ever roll themselves into such a perfect, slowly spinning ball. Or, unbreathing, unfold themselves. Then the liquid in the tank stills, and the bodies drift back to stasis. Dead calm again.

Yet down there in the old morgue in Dundee, in a soon-to-be condemned building where the hum of the air conditioning is loud enough to take away thought, I am looking at the future of medicine. Those bodies in the anatomy department’s tank are bodies like no other ones in Britain. They are called Thiel bodies, and they are going to revolutionise the training of our doctors and surgeons.

“Absolutely,” says Sue Black. “They’re the most important thing to happen in anatomy for 180 years.”

What happened then?

“Burke and Hare. The Anatomy Acts that stopped bodysnatching.”

There’s a body being prepared in the next room to the tank. A corpse of a man in his late sixties, eyes open and surprised-looking, bald, and with an impressive paunch, is raised up on a table at an angle of about 40 degrees. On the inside of his upper thigh, a cannula has been inserted. Again, I don’t look too closely, not because I’m squeamish but because looking at death feels unnatural, intrusive. Which just goes to show how rare death is in my life. Maybe that’s the same for most people. We’re all living in an age where death is no longer an open part of life but hidden away, forgotten about for as long as possible. How weird is that?

I have only ever seen three dead bodies: my parents’ and, last year, on holiday in Beijing, the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao. Sue Black has seen more corpses than anyone I can think of: more than 5,000 in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami and over a thousand after the war in Kosovo, let alone the ones she has worked with for all the rest of her career. To find out why she thinks Thiel bodies are so special, I follow her out of the morgue and into the dissecting room.

They’re called Thiel bodies after Walther Thiel, a German anatomist who died in February. Two decades ago, he discovered that the human corpse would remain astonishingly lifelike if pumped full of a special embalming fluid and submerged in it for a couple of months.

Until then, corpses used for dissection were embalmed using formalin. Sue shows me one of them, a woman who had been alive only the previous week. Already, her muscles are stiff and always will be: if you want to move one finger on the corpse’s hand, for example, you have to apply a fair amount of pressure. If you want to dissect the muscle tissue in a formalin body, it will be dry, unyielding.

A Thiel body is different. You have only to gently touch its fingers to move them. If you dissect the body, the tissue is soft and as near to lifelike as a corpse can be.

This matters enormously. If a surgeon wants to know what it’s really going to be like to open up the thorax, or perform abdominal or laparoscopic surgery, for example, if an anaesthetist wants to practise a nerve block, or dental students to extract their first tooth, a Thiel corpse offers the perfect training. It looks almost the same as a freshly-dead body – though the fatty tissue loses some of its yellow colour when exposed to the air – but it certainly feels the same. Where the muscle in a formalin corpse looks and acts like dried meat, in a Thiel one it behaves like fresh steak. If you want to learn anatomy or develop new surgical techniques, prostheses, and instruments, no type of body does it better.

The great advantage of doctors and surgeons learning from cadavers is that each of us is different. The bodies in computer anatomy programmes and even the most realistic 3-D models are all the same. Learning to work with those differences is the mark of a good surgeon, and the best training is therefore offered by dissecting the most lifelike “silent teachers”. As these are Thiel bodies, medical staff from all over the world are prepared to pay good money to train on the ones in Dundee. Indeed eight surgeons from Australia, for example, will be flying into Dundee to practise doing hip replacements on them any day now.

Given all of this, you might have thought that every university teaching hospital in the country would be using Thiel bodies. After all, Thiel himself didn’t patent his technique and it is freely available for any morgue in the world to use. They should be everywhere, but they aren’t: the ultimate proof, perhaps, of our myopia about death. So when Dundee’s new morgue opens this month, it will be the only one in Britain to use Thiel bodies. There’s not an equivalent morgue in the whole of the United States. And if they are rare, that’s possibly because it takes a rare kind of person to alert the living to the importance of the dead.

Professor Sue Black is such a woman. She’d be the first to say that’s rubbish – that Dundee’s global reputation for life sciences owes more to people like university Principal Pete Downes – and to downplay her role.

All the same, Professor Black’s work has enormous impact in at least three different fields. Her pioneering research into distinctive patterns of knuckles and other skin areas is turning out to be an increasingly important weapon against paedophilia. Since 2009 she has been able to show conclusively that the hand in photographs of child abuse could not belong to anyone other than the accused. That has led to convictions of paedophiles in 27 cases, the most recent – of a Grangemouth man who raped a 14-month-old baby – earlier this year.

An internationally-respected authority on children’s bone development – she co-authored the definitive book on the subject – she is still perhaps best known for her work in Kosovo and in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Thanks to her, hundreds – if not thousands – of victims’ relatives have been given the remains of their loved ones rather than been left in the limbo of uncertainty.

Finally, there is the campaign she is leading to raise funds for a new Thiel morgue for Dundee. For this, the university has pledged £1million, and will underwrite a further £500,000 but even though the project will revolutionise the teaching of medicine in Scotland, she still has the little matter of raising £1million from the public.

That, she realises, isn’t going to be easy. “On the new building that the morgue is going into, the other floors might be able to attract all kinds of sexy clinical and medical stuff. What we’re talking about is just a box for the dead. It’s hard to compete.”

But what if she could enlist the help of some of the world’s best crime writers to build a world-class morgue? What if they could be lured into a competition to get their fans to raise money for the morgue and the one who raises the most would have the honour of having the place named after them? Wouldn’t that help?

The Million for a Morgue competition was launched (millionforamorgue.com) by Sue and best-selling crime writer Val McDermid at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose last June. So far, and with about £100,000 raised, Tess Gerritsen is in front, McDermid herself second, and Kathy Reichs, Stuart MacBride and Peter James an equal third. Fans of Mark Billingham, Jeff Lyndsay, Lee Child, Harlan Coben and Jeffery Deaver really ought to get their fingers out.

I met Sue Black through that campaign and liked her straight away. She is friendly, unassuming, and both eloquent and passionate about her work. It has taken her to some particularly stress-filled places – with special forces on board a crash-landing Chinook in Iraq, uncovering evidence of horrendous war crimes in Kosovo. Yet in some ways, being an expert witness in a Scottish court sounds even worse: in the case of murdered Paisley toddler Declan Hainey she had to endure five and a half hours in which the defence tried in vain to prove her incompetence. One small slip in her work, and her reputation would be ruined: not just that, but scores of convicted paedophiles would rush to appeal against their sentences.

She shows me round the dissecting room. I didn’t think there would be as many bodies – there are about 40 – under plastic covers on the dissecting tables. But then I realise that what I had been expecting was more like a kind of police morgue you might see in CSI, not a university anatomy department. There, the bodies would either be kept for a short while under refrigeration or explored by a pathologist to find the cause of death. Here, the only bodies accepted are ones where there is no need for an inquest – which tends to make them rather older – and there is no need for refrigeration because they have all been embalmed.

This is what it means when people talk about giving their bodies to science. If you do so, you’ll end up here, or in one of the four other university anatomy departments in Scotland. Your body will be placed on a stainless steel table under a plastic cover – green for the 170 medical and 70 dental students and blue for 80 science (including forensic anthropology) students. It will be next to a teaching skeleton, a moveable light-cum-magnifying lens and, often enough a CT image on a lightbox to compare with what is being dissected. In term time, there will be up to four students around each body, working on a carefully devised programme to get the most use from each one, going from the least invasive process to the most. For the bits of the body that are cut away in the process, there is a stainless steel tank underneath each table.

Those embalmed bodies in the tanks downstairs will be brought up from the morgue for the next intake of students to work on in September. They will probably be in the dissection room for a year, although they can be kept for a maximum of three. (Once embalmed, incidentally, they would last for decades).

There’s a book of remembrance outside the dissection room “for those who generously gave their mortal remains for the furtherance of medical education and the benefit of mankind.” This year, there are 56 on the list. Each spring, the university holds a special non-denominational service to honour them. It’s always packed – not just with relatives but with students and staff too.

“The body is the most precious resource,” says Professor Black, gently touching an embalmed corpse. “This is somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s daughter. Whoever they were when they were alive, they made the most tremendous gift. They said to us you can have what is left of me as long as you learn from it – so it is up to us to see that as many people as possible do.”

What kind of people give their bodies for science? “I’ve just had a lady on the phone a minute ago who said you wouldn’t possibly want me,” says Dundee University’s bequeathal secretary Vivienne McGuire, who makes all the arrangements involved, from picking up the body to returning the ashes (if requested) after cremation. “She said I wouldn’t be any use to you at all. I’ve had a hysterectomy and an ileostomy. In any case I’m too old. I said we’d be perfectly happy to have you. It’s just so simple to go on our list – you just fill in a form. Let’s face it, it’s not as if you have to have a medical.”

Eddie Small, who has interviewed relatives of donors for In Memoriam, a book the university has just published in their honour, and who is doing a PhD on the culture of death in Scotland, points out that their motives vary enormously. “For some people the fact that the university effectively pays the cost of the funeral is very important,” he says. “The average funeral can cost around £3,500 and some people think why not spend some of that on a hooley and give some to charity? With others, the money isn’t a factor at all, and they do it out of altruism: they think it a sheer waste of a body to stick it into the ground. One donor has received a corneal graft and told me it was his way of giving something back.” The only trouble is, he points out, that often the family overrule the wish of the deceased to give their body to science: one of the donors is campaigning for the law to be changed to make this illegal.

What would I do with my own mortal remains, I can’t help thinking as I follow Sue past the serried ranks of covered bodies and attendant teaching skeletons. Would I give my body over to the students’ scalpel? Looking into the primitive tanks in the old morgue, was the only time I had any doubts. Those Thiel bodies floating together with unnatural flexibility like figures in a William Blake drawing of purgatory did slightly disturb me. I think it was something to do with seeing them gently bump into each other, seeing the dead touch.

I know that’s an absurdity, that the dead are dead and cannot touch. I know too, that the tank in the old morgue was just a prototype to test the science before the new morgue is built, that things will be different, and better from next year. And I know that the dead don’t scare me, not these ones anyway, because they’re on our side, wanting us to get better. Wanting us to heal. Wanting us to live.

Anyone in Scotland wishing to donate their body to medical science should contact Richard Dimelow at St Andrews House, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-244 5184 or email richard.dimelow@scotland.gsi.gov.uk; Dundee University’s bequeathal secretary is Vivienne McGuire, tel: 01382 388825, email v.mcguire@dundee.ac.uk

Anyone wishing to help Dundee revolutionise the UK’s scientific, medical and dental research and training can find out more by visiting www.million foramorgue.com