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 November 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1125 words.)

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