A long-awaited review of Harvard’s anatomical gift program, ordered by the university after its morgue manager was arrested for allegedly stealing and selling body parts, points no fingers and finds no fault.
Instead, the panel of outside experts recommends a series of procedural improvements that, taken together, imply that the morgue’s three-person staff often operated without adequate documentation and oversight. For example, the experts found there was no formal procedure for receiving, reviewing, and approving requests to use donors’ bodies.
Harvard officials, who released the experts’ report Thursday, said the purpose was never to investigate what went wrong — they’re leaving that to law enforcement — but rather to provide guidance for the handling of cadavers donated for medical education and research.
The scandal led to charges against seven people, spawned 11 lawsuits against Harvard, and revealed a ghoulish underworld of people who traffic in human remains.
Asked how the thefts could have continued for five years at the nation’s premiere medical school, deputy provost Peggy Newell said, “Harvard is not the only place where this has happened. People find ways of getting around systems all the time when they’re criminals. We have to do the best we can to thwart that.”
But Douglas K. Snook, a lawyer who represents relatives of four people who donated their bodies to Harvard, said the university’s response shows “indifference” to those donors and their families. He asserted the panel recommendations included “very basic things that already should have been in place,” and aren’t enough to prevent another such scandal.
“It’s clear that they’re not looking to take any kind of responsibility,” he said, and instead pinning all the blame on Cedric Lodge, the morgue manager. “They had a responsibility when they hired him and responsibility to oversee him.”
The panel advised tightening security and overhauling the system for tracking cadavers, including requiring that two people witness the boxing of each corpse and the container be sealed before being sent away for cremation. It recommended rigorous employee screening and training, improved donor consent and registration procedures, an operational committee to ensure compliance with regulations, greater involvement by medical school faculty, and the appointment of a medical director.
Some of the recommendations have already been implemented or are underway, including a bar code system to track bodies and added security cameras, Newell said. The medical school has resumed accepting body donations, having moved quickly to close any gaps in the process that would allow theft, she said.
Prosecutors allege Lodge spent years diverting human heads, brains, skin, bones, and other cadaver parts that were supposed to be cremated. Lodge even allegedly let his customers enter the morgue to select the parts they wanted to buy. Several other people were arrested in connection with what federal prosecutors called a multistate conspiracy that ran from sometime in 2018 until March of this year.
Additionally, Harvard is facing 11 lawsuits from relatives of people who donated their bodies to the anatomical gifts program.
One of Snook’s clients, Linda Casadonte of Franklin, said Harvard must do something to make sure it never happens again. “The families of the people that they did this to have to live with this forever,” said Casadonte. Her older brother Tony, who acted as a surrogate father and taught her to tie her shoes and ride a bike, had donated his body. After Tony died in 2017, she had recurrent nightmares that her brother was being hurt. When she heard what had gone on at the morgue, it was as if the nightmares were proven true.
“There are pieces of my brother’s body, who knows where they are,” Casadonte said Thursday. “I’ll never find peace, never. My brother’s body is out there. Who knows what kind of a person buys that and what they are doing to him.”
The morgue manages corpses that medical and dental students dissect and study; people register before death to donate their bodies.
“An anatomical donation is among the most altruistic acts and deserves our attention and profound respect,” university provost Alan M. Garber and medical school dean Dr. George Q. Daley said in a letter Thursday to Harvard medical and dental faculty, staff, and students.
Garber and Daley said they have appointed a task force to review the recommendations and come up with a plan.
The expert panel was made up of Dr. Sally Aiken, retired chief medical examiner of Spokane County, Wash.; Robert McKeon, director of the Body Donor Program at the Emory University School of Medicine; and Brandi Schmitt, executive director of anatomical services for the University of California. They visited the morgue, interviewed employees, and studied records, and made more than a dozen recommendations involving policies, governance, and the physical plant.
The panel urged the university to develop a comprehensive policy addressing all human specimens acquired for education and research. Among its findings was some poor conditions at the morgue; the largest of three storage freezers had cracks and swelling in the bottom from water damage, the panel said, a problem that has persisted for more than a year.
But it reserved its strongest words for the handling of donor specimens that are retained for long-term use, stating that “methods for tracking and documentation are not sufficient.” It recommends Harvard’s “legacy collection of skeletons and bones” be assessed by experts. Noting that such collections are common at US medical schools, the panel adds, “Most were purchased . . . in a manner that was legal at the time but may not have been ethical.”
Five people, including Lodge and Salem oddities seller Katrina Maclean, who owned the shop “Kat’s Creepy Creations,” are scheduled for trial in Williamsport, Pa., on April 1, on charges of conspiracy to transport stolen goods. All have pleaded not guilty.
Two others were also charged: a Pennsylvania oddities dealer who pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing, and an Arkansas mortuary worker who pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, the 11 civil suits against Harvard are pending in Suffolk Superior Court. The plaintiffs have argued in court documents that Harvard exhibited “at best, willfully blind indifference” in its oversight of the morgue and body-donation program.
Harvard entered motions to dismiss nine of the complaints, arguing that under the state’s anatomical gift law, organizations and employees operating in “good faith” are not liable.
“Harvard recognizes the anger and uncertainty of those who fear that their loved ones’ remains were among those Lodge allegedly stole,” the university’s 21-page memorandum states. “But any liability that attaches to Lodge for his alleged criminal activity attaches to him alone.”
The memorandum concludes the medical school should not be liable because it “did not employ Lodge to steal and sell body parts and his conduct could not conceivably be alleged to benefit Harvard.”
“No, but you did hire him to keep bodies safe and to honor the donation process,” said Jennie DunKley, whose late husband, Barry, had donated his body. “How can they not be responsible for the people they hire? It’s ludicrous. It’s infuriating.”
After Harvard notified DunKley last June that her husband’s remains “might have been impacted” by the thefts, she worried the scandal would discourage people from donating. She told a reporter then that she still intended to donate her body because the anatomical gifts program is important for medical training.
But after reading Harvard’s response to the lawsuits on Thursday, DunKley said she’s thinking of joining one of the suits — and reconsidering her own plans to donate her body.
The medical school’s failure to take responsibility may do more to undermine the donation process than anything Lodge did, she said. “How can people trust the process if they’re saying, ‘We’re not responsible for what he did’?” she said.