Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

Baylor College of Medicine also did whole-body radiation experiments on scores of cancer patients from 1952 to 1964, under contract with the Air Force Special Weapons Project (which later became the Defense Atomic Support Agency). Baylor did not respond to Houston Press requests for comment, so there was no confirmation that cadavers of minorities still dominate its human specimen collection.

The government says it no longer does secret studies on patients and dead people, and corpses of color floating in formaldehyde tanks could be things of the past. But Houston may still have a problem with body snatching.

In 1994 Alton Arnic died of a heart attack while riding a Metro bus. His grieving family went to the funeral home and noticed a jagged scar on his head. Relatives were shocked to learn that the Harris County medical examiner's office had removed part of his brain and offered it to the Transplantation Research Foundation (see "Bitter Harvest," by Steve McVicker, January 25, 1996). Arnic had never signed a donor card, and the medical examiner's office, then headed by Jachimczyk, did not ask his family for permission to take his brain matter. When the family protested, Jachimczyk told them that under Texas law it is legal to harvest body tissue for research, even without family consent. He was right.

David Terrill

Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.
Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.

When a person dies, state law allows the medical examiner's office to determine that it is unlikely that the body will be identified or a relative notified within four hours of the death. When that's the situation, morgue workers can legally remove anything, from bones to brain matter, without approval from next of kin.

U. Lawrence Boze, the lawyer for the Arnic family, planned to challenge the constitutionality of the statute in a suit against the medical examiner's office and the Transplantation Research Foundation. But a visiting judge ruled they could not be sued. Boze believes black cadavers -- Arnic was African-American -- have historically provided the county's main harvest for tissue and organs. Boze knows of a case where an African-American woman suffering from appendicitis ended up at a funeral home with postmortem stitches nowhere near her appendix.

Houston's unresolved legacy of body snatching poses dicey issues. Many ethicists note that harvesting or preserving unclaimed bodies is unacceptable because it violates the tenets of several religions, from the beliefs of Native Americans to Orthodox Judaism.

Ironically, though, the issue is also marked by deep concern, even valor. The experiments at M.D. Anderson and Baylor contributed to a body of information about flying conditions that would later help the United States put astronauts on the moon and keep its soldiers safe. Project Sunshine's results were yet more dramatic.

"In 1957," Sunshine researcher Laurence Kulp recalled recently, "Willard Libby testified before Congress that children were absorbing strontium 90 at an alarming rate and that their bone radioactivity levels might rise to dangerous levels. Our tests on stillborns and children were the basis on which the nations of the world agreed not to do any more atomic testing in the atmosphere. Our data helped lead to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963."

"Did Project Sunshine raise moral or ethical issues?" Kulp asks rhetorically. "People today don't understand. What we did was purely humanitarian."

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