by Mary Roach

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Stiff Characters

The main characters in Stiff are Mary Roach, the researchers she meets, and the dead.

  • Mary Roach, the author and narrator, is a journalist who has written many books in which she dives into single topics—such as, in the case of Stiff, the uses and history of human cadavers.
  • The researchers Roach meets include Ronn Wade, director of anatomical gifts at a university; Arpad Vass, who studies human decomposition; Albert King, who works in transportation safety testing; and Rick Lowden, a materials engineer who studies bullet impact.
  • The dead, though they are not individually identified, are crucial and complex figures in Stiff.


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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1132

Mary Roach

The author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and many other books, Roach is a former travel writer who, having been everywhere, “began to look for foreign lands between the cracks.” As a journalist, she considers herself a voyeur, naturally curious and drawn to what fascinates her. She revels in the foreign world of science, and particularly in the “strange and, in its repellent way, enticing” science of the dead.

Ronn Wade

Wade is in charge of the anatomical gifts program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He believes that “live surgery is the worst place for a surgeon to be practicing a new skill.” The trouble, however, is that medical school anatomy departments are entitled to the majority of available cadavers, which makes it difficult for licensed physicians to practice new techniques. Wade arranges cadaver lab seminars for Baltimore-area surgeons who wish to first perform unfamiliar procedures on willed bodies rather than live patients.

Roach is surprised when Wade informs her that even surgical residents have limited access to donated cadavers: they learn by watching their attending, assisting with simple skills, and graduating to full procedures. “It’s basically on-the-job training,” according to Wade. He hopes to change this.

Robert Knox

Knox was a nineteenth-century Scottish anatomist who “instigated anatomy’s fatal PR blunder: the implicit sanctioning of murder for medicine.” Like many physicians of his era, Knox had difficulty legally obtaining cadavers on which to practice. The growing number of medical schools and medical students outpaced the number of bodies available for dissection. Until 1836, the only cadavers on the market belonged to murderers who had been executed. Although there was no explicit law against donation, no one willed their body to science. To be resurrected, it was believed, one’s body must remain relatively intact after death. It is therefore unlikely that Knox believed the strange men who showed up on his doorstep to sell a “donated” corpse; nevertheless, he accepted the body delivered by Messrs. Burke and Hare, as well as the next sixteen they brought him.

The pair was eventually caught for what had become a profitable murder scheme: suffocating vulnerable lodgers in Hare’s boardinghouse and selling their bodies to Knox. Hare was granted immunity, but Burke was hanged for his crimes and, as a murderer, was summarily dissected. Knox was never charged for his role, but the public held him morally accountable for overlooking the obvious signs of trauma to the bodies. An effigy of Knox was hung in front of his home with a placard reading “Knox, the associate of the infamous Hare.”

Arpad Vass

Vass is an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee (UT) and a senior staff scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). UT and ORNL work together to study tissue decomposition under a variety of conditions—that is, conditions most commonly associated with the illegal disposal of human bodies. At the UT Forensic Anthropology Center, cadavers are buried in shallow graves, encased in concrete, stuffed into trunks or plastic bags, or sunk in ponds. ORNL maintains a database of tissue samples taken from the cadavers at various stages of decomposition. Vass’s project uses these expected decay profiles to determine a person’s time of death.

Vass takes Roach on a tour of UT’s facilities, explaining the biological processes at each stage of decomposition. In addition to approximate time of death, Vass can tell if a body has been moved based on its degree of dissolution into the surface beneath it. Roach uses her experience with the sights—and smells—of human decomposition to argue that people in Robert Knox’s era may have viewed dissection more positively had they known what happens to bodies when left to nature.

Albert King

The director of the Wayne State Bioengineering Center, King has been a decades-long champion of cadaver research in transportation safety, having testified in its defense during a 1978 congressional hearing that nearly prohibited it. King has published some of the most comprehensive statistics in impact research. Roach summarizes,

For every cadaver that rode the crash sleds to test three-point seat belts, 61 lives per year have been saved. For every cadaver that took an air bag in the face, 147 people per year survive otherwise fatal head-ons. For every corpse whose head has hammered a windshield, 68 lives per year are saved.

At Wayne State, King and his colleagues research the effects of whiplash on the brain and other organs by simulating motor vehicle accidents with cadavers as occupants. King allows Roach to watch a side-impact simulation meant to replicate the injuries sustained in a typical accident. Data derived from the cadaver research is used to develop the injury thresholds for the crash test dummies used by automobile manufacturers and transportation safety authorities.

Rick Lowden

Lowden, a materials engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, specializes in bullets. At the time of Roach’s visit, he has been working on the “design of an environmentally friendly no-lead bullet that doesn’t cost the military an arm and a leg to clean up after.” Yet legs are what lie before Roach and Lowden: a set of “thighs” positioned on a table thirty feet afield. The thighs are made of a specialized gelatin “formulated to match the average density of human tissue.” Lowden designed them as a way to view the ballistic path through human tissue without actually having to shoot bullets through human tissue.

Roach adds another possible reason for the gelatin: people are less willing to donate their bodies to test equipment meant not to save lives, but to take them. There is stigma involved in testing munitions on humans, and the military has only recently begun sanctioned experiments involving both cadavers and public funds. As Roach notes, “the goals are strictly humanitarian.” She uses Lowden’s ballistic research to introduce the cadavers-in-body-armor studies developed with the goal of reducing mortality and morbidity among American soldiers.

The Dead

It would be remiss to exclude the principal characters, the bodies themselves. They are deidentified but not depersonalized, human despite their circumstances. Roach writes,

Some were beautiful, some monsters. Some wore sweatpants and some were naked, some in pieces, others whole.
All were strangers to me. I would not want to watch an experiment, no matter how interesting or important, that involved the remains of someone I knew and loved . . . I feel this way not because what I would be watching is disrespectful, or wrong, but because I could not, emotionally, separate that cadaver from the person it recently was. One’s own dead are more than cadavers, they are place holders for the living. They are a focus, a receptacle, for emotions that no longer have one. The dead of science are always strangers.

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