As someone who collects, studies, and sells bones, I have a few thoughts about the past, present, and future of the industry.
The medical bone trade has arguably been around for as long as there have been doctors. For every doctor in training, a myriad of anatomical education involving deceased persons is necessary. For example, in Great Britain, a whole industry began around body-snatching for the use of training anatomists and doctors, called the Resurrectionists. Due to the lack of willed body programs, anatomists in need of bodies for dissection could only legally purchase the bodies of criminals who were executed. As the use of capital punishment decreased, the price of these bodies became prohibitively expensive. To meet this need, anatomists relied on Resurrectionists (graverobbers) to provide fresh bodies to them. Because graverobbing was a minor crime and not a capital offense, both doctors and the law turned a blind eye to this shady practice. This allowed physicians to pay Resurrectionists under the table with little legal retribution. Although this did lead to disputes with grieving families, and even murder (Burke and Hare) in some cases, it was generally viewed as a necessary, dirty evil in the name of progressing science. This time could be referred to as the Bronze Age of the medical bone trade. As people began to recoil at this practice, the need for a reliable source of bones still remained.
Beginning in the early 1900s, commercialized bones began to spring up from sources in India that were then distributed to the West. Companies like Adam, Rouilly and Somso would take these cleaned skeletons, add their markings, and sell them to medical students. These skeletons were primarily sourced from lower-caste Indians, and the possibility of graverobbing cannot be eliminated when considering their origin. Medical schools did not consider this fact when requiring their students to purchase skeletons of their own, and as more people entered medical school, demand continued to grow. This could be considered the Renaissance of the medical bone trade, as people began to understand the true financial impact the industry could have with the ever-increasing demand.
The trade grew and grew, with companies like Kilgore International, Carolina Biological Supply, and Clay Adams joining the business, increasing the demand for skeletons from India. From the 1960s to 1985, India had a chokehold on the skeleton market, in what can be considered the Golden Age of the medical bone trade. Tens of thousands of bones were being shipped to the West, for each individual medical student purchasing one. This came to a crashing halt in 1985, when a warehouse with the skeletons of over 1500 children was discovered. In a country where children went missing frequently, this stoked fears of people being murdered for their skeletons. India banned the export of skeletons, and while countries like China and Russia tried to meet the ever-present demand, they just could not produce skeletons in the way that India had.
Medical schools, faced with the dearth of skeletons, restructured their programs to provide students with skeletons rather than making them source their own. These skeletons are only replaced when broken or stolen, so they serve many more students than their forebearers.
But where does that leave the medical bone trade now?
Bone Sellers like me are seeing an influx of retired medical skeletons from the Renaissance Era of the bone trade. As doctors retire and pass on, the skeletons they used in medical school are included among their estates. The need for real human bones has not gone away, but institutional consumers have had to change their expectations of bones. Gone are the days of having multiple sources of new, recently deceased people’s bones. But I predict that we are on the precipice of the next Great Bone Wave. While the skeletons I primarily deal with now are from the early days of commercialized bone trade, due to that generation starting to fade, I predict that in the next decade, an influx of bones from the Golden Age of the bone trade will flood the market. Economically we are expecting the Great Transfer of Wealth, as the baby-boomer generation passes on their finances to younger generations. But I also see this event as the time when doctors who started their careers from the 1960s to the 1980s will start to have their estates liquidated. What this means for the public’s perception of the bone trade remains to be seen, but I am curious to see where the public’s opinion will shift when this occurs.