When sourcing skeletons, I occasionally encounter a skeleton with a backstory. The seller will tell me all about “Matilda,” the maligned and unfortunate sex worker hit by a bus in the 1920’s, and preserved as a skeleton for decades to come. Without a doubt, this is always categorically false. People will often try to humanize and mythologize skeletons from the medical bone trade in what I believe to be an attempt to make sense of their own fear of death and being forgotten. Because a skeleton used for the medical bone trade was in fact once a person, people outside of that industry are disturbed by the lack of information. To assuage our fears, we fill in the blanks left in those hollow pits where eyes used to be.
While these stories add intrigue, they are far from the truth. Medical skeletons are divorced from their identities, because the identity of the bone’s original owner carries no medically relevant information to what can be gleaned from the skeleton. Much like doctor-patient confidentiality, bone donors have a right to anonymity, to be spared from outsiders prying into their lives and the lives of their living relatives. When talking to my mentor Dr. Mann, a professor of Forensic Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, he told me that their “willed body” program maintains anonymity, much like many other universities teaching the same course material. This allows for a level of professionalism to be maintained while studying an important facet of scientific research.
The only instance I have found of human remains in the scientific field not being kept anonymous is the remains used on cadaver farms, due to elements of their former lifestyles affecting the manner and duration of their decomposition. Even then, this is done on a case by case basis, and the only people who know the true extent of the deceased’s identity is the surviving family and the researchers. Bones in the medical trade do not need to be observed this way, and that information holds no bearing on their value as teaching objects.
What I conclude from this is that stories sell better. Hearing about the colorful life of Matilda the free-wheeling flapper who met a tragic vehicular demise is more compelling than the blank slate of a skeleton donated by an anonymous individual. While it is more interesting to lie about the origins of skeletons, you will never find me claiming to know the entire history of any skeleton I sell, because that is just not the truth.