Return of the Living Dead

In 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan was sitting on Texas's death row, contemplating his life and facing execution for murdering a 75-year-old man during a bank robbery nearly 12 years earlier. He decided to donate his remains to science, although his motives are still unclear. The faithful say he was hoping for redemption. Skeptics say Jernigan had a number of reasons for choosing to help science, all of which were self-serving: Donating his body would save his family funeral expenses, and some speculated that he thought such an uncommon end would inspire a true-crime book about his life, the proceeds of which might go to his family.

As fate would have it, a group of doctors working with the University of Colorado was in search of a freshly deceased male body -- free from illness and injury -- for a new project that would become the high-tech equivalent of a biology class skeleton. The results are on view at the Museum of Health and Medical Science in "Inside Out: The Visible Human," an exhibit The New Yorker described last year as "the most accurate human anatomical model ever seen."

"I developed the idea for the Visible Human Project in 1987 as part of my job at [the National Library of Medicine], which was to find ways to use computer-based education in medical school," says the project's director, Michael Ackerman. The project required brilliant scientists, photographers with vision, a really big hard drive and, oh, yeah, a corpse.

After his lethal injection, Jernigan's body was rushed to the University of Colorado, where scientists took the Jell-O mold concept to a whole new level. First, the corpse went through a series of scans, including MRI, CT and X-rays. Then, in a perhaps fitting end for a murderer, the body was frozen in gelatin and sliced into one-millimeter slivers.

This is where engineer, photographer and computer programmer Alexander Tsiaras took over. The canvas may have changed, but our fascination with the human subject remains the same. Michelangelo had his David, Picasso had his cubist view of women, and Andy Warhol displayed a silk-screen CT scan. Tsiaras got Jernigan, a 39-year-old former drug addict with a bunch of tattoos. Tsiaras and crew logged over 129,000 hours compiling thousands of images into a digital body that could be viewed from every angle, filling up the equivalent drive space of 15,000 floppy disks. In the end, the multimedia presentation became a work of art in its own right.

Calling this the "electronic yardstick of the 'normal' male," Ackerman hopes to standardize the study of human anatomy, in addition to creating a visual marvel. The project will be used by medical schools, NASA labs and Hollywood digital-imaging designers.

On death row, Jernigan's life was over. Now that he's dead, he lives on as a computer simulation. Perhaps he'll even star in a movie.

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Claire Theriot Mestepey