If you have ever read Dominique Lappierre’s City of Joy you will know that to pay for his daughters wedding the dying rickshaw walla sold his bones for science. Hours after demise and before properly mourned, bone traders came to collect.
Far from being fiction the trade in human tissue remained a skeleton in the closet of medicine. Primarily Indian, With all its racist overtones, few hand bones will we articulated to point to the culprits. Medical students required bones for mankind’s perceived greater good.
Long after Leonardo Di Vinci risked church censure studying cadavers, 18th century Resurrectionist’s as grave robbers were called, swiped the freshly dead for a small fee. While usually ignored in 1828 the Frankenstein trade culminated in the murderous rampage of William Burke and William Hare suppliers to doctor Robert Knox.
It was simpler to outsource supply by cajoling the Indian Dom Caste, of scavengers and sometimes weavers, to provide skeleton for export. Medical students simply repeated what they were told: in over populated India people died where they slept and the bodies were picked off the street. More probably the majority of the 60000 skeletons exported in 1984, were swiped from funeral pyres after the mourners had left.
This nefarious trade made news when in March1985 a man was found exporting 1500 more profitable child skeletons. The trade collapsed. China and Eastern Europe could not provide an alternative supply. Now moulded skeletons – while not perfect for teaching students, fill medical schools.
Though should we be surprised? It was in India I first met Lepers, as beggars, and even as fruit wallas. Gregory Roberts novel Shantaram describes the sprawl of huts that became Mumbai’s Slum of the Lepers . The Undead, as lepers could be called in Hindi, had to resort to stealing medical supplies and soon cornered the medical black market.
The bone traders have been similarly determined. The trade continues and other reported criminal cases have flared up, such as the 2006 arrest of the Biwas Bone Factory after a century of operation.
As journalist Scott Carney wrote:
“Although the international bone trade violates the national export law and local statutes against grave desecration, officials look the other way.”This is not a new thing,” says Rajeev Kumar, West Bengal’s deputy inspector general of police. “There’s no evidence that they were killing people.” …. “We are trying to implement the law based on the stress society places on it,” he adds. “Society does not see this as a very serious thing.”
The need to study human bones in medicine is well established. The need to obtain the informed consent of people whose bones are studied is not.
Gregory Roberts uses a turn of phrase that perhaps some could have used for the skeleton market:
‘These people are dying .. and they steal life for themselves, and then they sell life to others who are dying.’