Sydney morgue probed over corpse experiments

SYDNEY, Reuters

The head of Sydney’s main morgue has been suspended while an inquiry is held into reports staff removed a spine from a corpse and replaced it with broomstick, hammered skulls and stabbed bodies in medical experiments.

“A lot of the activities were at best unethical and potentially illegal. As a health minister faced with that I’m going to investigate it,” New South Wales state Health Minister Craig Knowles said on Monday.

Local television current affairs program “Sunday” revealed the corpse experiments at Sydney’s Glebe morgue, describing it as “virtually a body parts supermarket for medical researchers”.

“Doctors were allowed to come in if they had a particular research project. They were allowed to come in and get what they needed,” Jim Reynolds, a former morgue worker, told “Sunday”.

Another former morgue worker said he had seen a senior pathologist stab a corpse to study blood splatter patterns, another said he hit a skull with a hammer to replicate injuries received in a bludgeoning murder, while a third said she had seen a plastic surgeon practice nose jobs on corpses.

In one case a former morgue worker said he had removed a spinal column and replaced it with a broomstick.

The former morgue workers said organs and parts such as lungs, brains, hearts and femurs were taken from corpses without the permission of relatives and kept in the morgue for medical experiments.

“I’m disgusted these doctors can do this to people and their families. They are causing more grief,” Debra Ford, whose baby Shannon died of a congenital heart problem in 1997 and had her heart and lungs removed, told the “Sunday” program.

Ford was told her daughter’s heart had been removed, but it took three years to discover her lungs were taken for research.

Stood-down morgue boss Associate Professor John Hilton told “Sunday” that about 1,000 bodies left the morgue for burial without a brain each year. Hilton said the removal of organs was all part of the normal post-mortem examination process.

When a person dies suddenly, mysteriously or violently a coroner performs a post-mortem examination to determine the cause of death. The coroner does not have to seek family consent for the autopsy and can legally remove organs for post-mortem study.

“It is morally not defensible to assume that silence is assent,” state Health Minister Knowles said. “Whether its legal or illegal it’s simply an act of decency to get the informed consent of the next of kin.”

Up to 25,000 body parts, including hundreds of baby hearts, are held in hospitals, universities and museums in New South Wales, and many have been taken without permission from relatives, an official report released earlier in March showed.

At least 4,000 body parts from children, including 900 baby hearts, are stored in two major children’s hospitals in Sydney, according to a New South Wales audit of human organs and tissues kept following surgery and post-mortem examinations.

Two thirds of the human organs and tissues were the result of donations or routine surgery, but one third followed autopsies.