Mind and Body
This Woman Became a "Living Cadaver" in the Name of Progressive Science
Susan Potter always knew she would be sliced into 27,000 pieces. In her last will and testament, Potter donated her body to the Visible Human Body project, a program that transforms human cadavers into virtual specimens. The stunning video above shows exactly what Potter wanted to leave behind: Something that would “have an impact on the whole human race.”
It was a choice Potter made 16 years ago, as documented by National Geographic for the past 14 years. After she died of pneumonia at 87 in 2015, her small body — measuring a five feet one inch — was frozen solid. It was later sawed into four blocks, sliced into millimeter-thin bits, and photographed after each slice. These images are being assembled into a digitized collection for anatomy students to use as an essential component of their studies.
Potter approached Vic Spitzer, Ph.D., about becoming his experiment after she read about the Visible Human Project in the newspaper. But Spitzer, director of the Center for Human Simulation at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, had met Potter before. She was well known for selling flowers on campus over the holidays. Now, near where her body is kept in the center’s freezer, paintings of flowers adorn the walls.
It was a condition that Potter, an immigrant from Germany, set before her death that she would tour where her body would be kept before she officially decided to donate her remains. Spitzer didn’t want to, but eventually complied, explaining now that he said “I don’t want to show you where you end up!”
Spitzer also didn’t count on becoming friends with the woman who he would eventually put into a machine and slice.
“We became friends much to my . . . I did not want to be her friend,” he explained. “I wasn’t particularly happy about imaging and sectioning my friend.”
But Potter wanted, in Spitzer’s words, to “end up in the student’s minds.” Because her body had gone through a double mastectomy, melanoma, spine surgery, a hip replacement, and diabetes, her body offered a different perspective compared to the few others in the Visible Human collection — it was diseased. Now, as students come to understand her body piece by piece, they can glean a deeper understanding of a person who resembles many of their future patients.
Typically, it takes around seven years to complete the process of creating a “virtual cadaver,” and students and scientists will be working with Potter’s body for years to come. The photographs taken of her body will be virtually stacked, then rendered into a 3D image. Students, in turn, can remove the skin, fat, and muscles on the 3D with just one click — making it an essential tool for learning anatomy side-by-side with an actual cadaver.
Before Potter passed, she also made videos about why she wanted to donate her body that future students can consume for years to come. During her adult life, her body went through trials of immobility and ill health, and after her death, she hoped to help sick individuals as well as the doctors who would one day treat her.