It’s hard to imagine many scientific topics that are more challenging to talk about than research involving the dead; yet this is just what Mary Roach does in her new book, Stiff.
With equal measures of respect and humour, Roach presents an insider’s view of the immeasurable contributions people have made to science in spite of having passed on. In her own words: “This is a book about notable achievements made while dead.”
Roach reminds us that many kinds of training and research simply would not exist if people did not generously donate their mortal remains to the uses of science. From surgical training and anatomical research to studies in forensics, ballistics and automobile and airline safety, the recently deceased have been hard at work making the world much safer for the living.
This has undeniable benefits-not only increased accuracy, but also in allowing researchers to do their jobs without using live animals (as much) or people that occasionally used to volunteer for dangerous crash investigations or surgical research in teaching hospitals. The day is approaching when computer simulations and artificial bodies made of ballistic gelatin and mineralized plastic bones will take the place of cadavers in these kinds of research.
But that doesn’t make the thought any easier to entertain, and Roach doesn’t pull many punches. Not at all what one would expect from a book about research using dead people, Stiff is far from clinical. Instead, it is an in-your-face account of Roach’s encounters with the scientists that must occasionally make use of cadavers in their research. The effect is simultaneously humanizing and grotesque.
The reader is prompted to understand the careful mix of respect, compassion, and total disassociation that researchers must apply in dealing with their work. Roach succeeds in this only at the expense of sympathy for herself as the writer. It’s easy to admire her utter chutzpah in researching and writing a book about cadaver research, but her humour fails to amuse as often as it succeeds, sometimes sounding glib and even gruesome.
“I wanted to know how-scientifically and emotionally-a person does this job,” says Roach in her chapter on crash investigation. In order to do this, she has to subject herself, and the reader, to a kind of closeness you wouldn’t find in a textbook covering the same material.
Roach writes with a simple matter-of-fact style that makes for easy reading. But the read is still quite challenging from an emotional point of view. There are definitely more squeamish-friendly, if less colourful, discussions of the subject to be found.