The article has been automatically translated into English by Google Translate from Russian and has not been edited.

As an American, she bequeathed her body to science for the sake of an anatomical 3D project


Source: Tjournal

“Feel free to cut me up,” Susan Potter repeated to researchers for 15 years. In the name of science, that's what they did.

Susan Potter. Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

In February, 2015-year-old Susan Potter passed away in the US, but as scientists believe, her memory will live for many more years. That's because the last 88 years of life a woman participated in a project to create a digital anatomical model of the human body. This is a complex and time-consuming process that has achieved a breakthrough thanks to Potter and her interest in science, writes Tjournal.

National Geographic magazine 16 has been following the life of an American woman for years and her participation in a science project. From the moment when the doctors shook their heads and said that she would live no more than a year, until a long friendship with the head of the research program. All this for the sake of being able to document how the will of his body to science helps progress.

Warning: some details and photos in this article can be shocking.

Victor Spitzer. Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

The birth of the project

Around 2000, Susan Potter carried a card with her that said she had bequeathed her body to the Visible Human project and allowed her to use photographs of her body in scientific publications and distribute them on the Internet. She knew all about what would happen to her body after death: how to freeze it, and then saw it with a giant device, then take a detailed picture of each piece of skin. She knew and saw the room where all this had to happen.

“To cure a patient, first of all, the doctor must study the structure of his body,” says doctor and scientist Robert Joy from the US Military Medical University. The modern medical community considers this to be an unconditional truth, but this was not always the case.

Until the 14 century, dissection (dissection of the body for anatomical research) was considered blasphemy, and usually the operation was performed not by medical students, but by third parties such as hairdressers or professional surgeons. The vast majority of future doctors only watched the process and drew theory from books.

The founder of the scientific anatomy is the Belgian doctor Andreas Vesalius, who in 1500-s conducted a course on autopsy for students of the Italian University of Padua. Modern students spend much less time in anatomical laboratories than in the past. Many are interested in more modern medical fields such as molecular genetics, wanting to make a breakthrough in this direction.

According to the former head of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Colorado, David Whitlock, at the beginning of the 20 of the 20th century, medical students spent tens of times more time studying the structure of the body than they do now.

The difficulties in this area are also due to the fact that the body of the deceased is an expensive and non-renewable resource. For example, the transportation and maintenance of each corpse at the University of Colorado costs 1900 dollars.

At the end of 1980, the idea of ​​creating a digital model of the human body for anatomical research came to the head of the US National Library of Medicine Michael Eckerman. He saw in developing computer technologies the opportunity to create a model on which it would be possible to carry out dissection not once, but an infinite number. In 1991, a team led by biologists Victor Spitzer and David Whitlock set to work. The project, called Visible Human, received a state grant of 720 thousand dollars. In the future, spending on it increased to 1,4 million dollars.

The task was to create digital images of men and women. It took Spitzer two years to search for the male body: it should have been without serious deviations, no more than 180 centimeters, no injuries and, most important, fresh. The last point determined the development of the project - the scientists got the body of an 39-year-old Texan sentenced to death for murder. Due to technical difficulties, the corpse was torn apart only on 2000 miniature pieces, but successfully digitized.

In 1994, researchers got the body of an 59-year-old woman who died of heart disease. She managed to divide already into 5000 pieces, significantly improving the detail of the models. This seemed to complete the work. But then Susan Potter appeared.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot


Susan was born in 1927 year in Germany, and after the Second World War, she moved to New York. In 1956, she married Harry Potter's accountant, abandoning Witschel's maiden name. Years later, an elderly couple moved to Denver, where Susan got into a car accident and lost her ability to walk. The woman began to move in an electric wheelchair, which sometimes arranged "race" through the streets. The locals knew her as a stubborn activist for the rights and convenience of people with disabilities.

In 2000, Potter stumbled upon an article in the newspaper about the Visible Human, found contacts with Victor Spitzer and called: “My name is Sue Potter. I read about Visible Human in the newspaper and I want to bequeath my body. I want to be cut. ” Surprised biologist invited her to the laboratory, and soon she was studying her in his electric chair. She was interested in all the details of the project, but Spitzer said directly to the woman that they needed a healthy body.

Potter’s body has been affected by numerous surgeries, including double mastectomy (surgical removal of the mammary gland), and diseases, including diabetes, an ulcer and melanoma.

However, having considered the options, the biologist conceded. Provided that the body of Potter will be the object of study, not only after death, but during life. The doctor was interested not only in the case history of the woman, but in her impressions of life with various ailments. She could share them with students, give lectures that would be distributed on the Internet, and her life would be forever noted in history, the biologist thought.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

In the 15 years of the project, Potter has truly become an important person for medical students at the University of Colorado. The group that followed her life and participated in the research was called “Susan’s Team”. Many were strongly attached to the woman, although they noted that sometimes she demanded too much attention. “It’s hard to personally know a person and work with him after his death,” said Spitzer long before his death, Potter. He has been treating the body of a woman since day one.

The woman often complained to the doctor that he was not paying enough attention to her, although he called her more often than his elderly mother. It seemed to Spitzer that the more he gave Potter, the more she demanded.

“I think she wanted me to visit her every day. She was sad when I didn’t answer calls or leave the city, ”the scientist recalls.

Sometimes they argued, as an elderly American woman refused one doctor after another, allegedly because they did not spend enough time with her.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

Medical students in the role of children

According to the rules, if a person bequeathed his body to science, his name and surname is not disclosed. Doctors are told only the age and cause of death, but no more. Therefore, some students saw in Potter only a woman who wants to become famous thanks to the project.

“If I can help young doctors become better, that’s my goal,” the American replied.

Not everybody really got along with her provocative and sometimes annoying character, but at the same time she tried to bring benefits.

She knitted blankets and hats for babies, helped at the hospital souvenir shop, until one day she hit a man’s leg, after which she was asked to leave. Having lost contact with her own children, Potter saw them in the students of her group. She invited them to her home for dinner, gave gifts and talked to future doctors about the importance of compassion, making it clear that he was not enough for her either.

As the doctors remember, who, as students, communicated with Potter, she often behaved as if the whole world was spinning around her. There were reasons for this - the parents left the young Potter with her grandparents to grow up in Nazi Germany, while they themselves fled to the United States. Since childhood, she knew what hunger and bombing are. When she was four years old, her grandfather died of a heart attack, six years later her grandmother also died. The girl was in a shelter, from where later she was taken by her aunt. With the end of the war, she went after her parents in the United States, but never met with them.

In 2000, doctors believed that due to complications during the treatment of melanoma and other diseases, Potter would die within a year. Undoubtedly, the desire to participate in a scientific project is one of the main reasons why a woman has lived 15 for years.

She carefully studied the details of the study and set the conditions for her to freeze along with her beloved teddy bear, and classical music would play in the room while cutting the body. One day, Potter asked National Geographic reporters when she could look at her photos that they were taking. She was not embarrassed to learn that they will be published only after her death.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

Digital Susan Potter

Potter died 16 February 2015 year 88 year of life due to complications after pneumonia. Spitzer, who knew her 15 for years, personally performed a body freezing operation. He was treated with polyvinyl alcohol to protect against cold and immersed in a chamber with a temperature of −26 ° C. Researchers tried to obtain funding for further work, but private investors and the US National Library of Medicine were not interested in the project.

Potter's body stayed in the cell for a little over two years, until finally 7 on April 2017 of the year was removed outside. Spitzer together with the assistant laid him on the medical table, secured in place and the two of them cut it into four parts with a giant tool. Each fragment was further divided into thousands of tiny sections. After each passage of the blade, the digital camera photographed a new opening layer.

The procedure took place until the body of a woman turned into a handful of dust. Meanwhile, as Potter requested, classical music was playing in the room — Mozart’s Requiem.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

In 1993, Visible Human took four months to cut the body of a dead man into two thousand pieces. Twenty-four years later, cutting Potter into 27 of thousands of pieces took two months. In December 2018, thanks to nearly seven thousand photographs, the researchers recreated the digital anatomical model of the woman’s head and torso. There is still at least two or three years of work on digitizing the rest of the body. The final work will allow you to “remove” entire layers from the 3D model in a few seconds.

Spitzer continues to work on the project, as Potter wanted. The process is difficult, and sometimes an elderly man falls asleep at a computer desk in the laboratory. He still gives lectures on the Visible Human, as he did at the beginning of working with Potter.

Photo: YouTube / National Geographic Video Screenshot

During one of these speeches in 2004, he stated that the ultimate goal of the researchers is to ensure that the digital model responds to the outside world. “When will you stop?” One of the students asked. "Never," replied Spitzer. Lost in thought, he added: “When the body rises and [independently] goes, then we will be almost there.”

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