Erin Wiegand interviews Mary Roach
With one book written on cadavers (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) and another on ghosts (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife), you might expect Mary Roach to be a pretty disturbed individual. She’s not. While her subject matter tends towards the macabre, Roach is simply one of those writers who’s fascinated by the unusual, the unlikely, and the more-than-a-little-disturbing.
Whether she’s writing about post-death opportunities for employment or the origins of ectoplasm, she has the uncanny ability to satisfy the morbid curiosity you never knew you had…
Q: In Stiff, you talk about cadavers being used for the benefit of humankind, whether as test subjects for seat belts or body armor, or in medical schools. Did you come across any practices that seemed a little dubious?
Surprisingly few. Historically, there were a lot more of them, because there really wasn’t any regulation, or anyone watching out for the dead—and the dead don’t make very effective lobbying groups. They don’t stand up for themselves very well. I feel that something like cosmetic surgery practice is a gray area—it’s important for surgeons to be able to practice and get things right, but certainly I think that when people donate themselves to science and the betterment of [humanity], that’s not what they had in mind.
A lot of it is really misunderstood, though. There’s a lot of media coverage of something like this study of footwear for teams that clear land mines overseas, and they use cadavers [in their testing]. What that translated to, in the media, was, “Cadavers Used in Land Mine Test!” Which is ridiculous—nobody is blowing up cadavers to make a more lethal land mine, but that’s how it came across. Initially it sounds not justifiable because, well, just build a stronger boot, right? Why do you need to blow up a leg? In fact, what happens with land mines is that the footwear actually becomes like shrapnel, and sometimes a stiffer boot causes more damage—you’re launching pieces of the boot deeper into the foot and the leg, and then you get infections, and the leg ends up being amputated above the knee instead of below. So the more you understand about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, the more justifiable it becomes. I found that usually, the things that initially struck me as a little iffy were, in fact, fairly worthwhile.
(This interview first appeared in LiP: Informed Revolt and was also included in the magazine’s anthology, Tipping the Sacred Cow, available for free online as of May 2011.)