On Harvard Medical School’s Response to Its Cadavers Scandal
Two weeks ago, federal prosecutors announced that a Harvard Medical School employee and three others had been indicted for allegedly trading in body parts from cadavers that had been donated to the school. The august medical institution issued a decent statement about the scandal and has taken some smart actions, but questions remain.
Prosecutors in Scranton, Pennsylvania, announced the indictment of the four on June 14. The group is alleged to be part of a nationwide network (two other people have been otherwise charged) that bought and sold human remains stolen from Harvard Medical School and an Arkansas mortuary from about 2018 to August 2022. One person targeted is Cedric Lodge, who, according to the feds, managed the morgue for Harvard’s Anatomical Gifts Program.
That same day, HMS issued an open letter over the signatures of Dean of the Faculty of Medicine George Q. Daley and Dean for Medical Education Edward M. Hundert. It’s headlined “An Abhorrent Betrayal.”
The deans noted their “profound sadness and distress.” “We are so very sorry for the pain this news will cause for our anatomical donors’ families and loved ones, and HMS pledges to engage with them during this deeply distressing time,” they wrote.
Toward that end, the school set up a webpage with resources for donor families, a FAQ page and a toll-free information and support center. It was also sending letters out to the donor families. Obviously, they need to know if their loved ones’ remains were involved. The school and the prosecutors seem to still be trying to identify which bodies were so evilly used.
The letter then addressed how important donated cadavers are to medical education. Clearly, a major concern for the institution is whether this incident will hurt such donations.
HMS cooperated with the feds’ investigation, so it had time to craft its response for once the indictment became public (it fired Lodge on May 6). It did a decent job, including in setting up the channels for the families. It might be argued that HMS should have publicly responded as soon as it learned of the situation, but maybe prosecutors asked it not to.
This is one of those crises in which a party needing to respond is itself a victim, which makes the job easier. Even U.S. Attorney Gerard M. Karam, in thanking HMS for its cooperation, said the school “is also a victim here.”
Except for those looming questions: Where was the oversight? Wasn’t there any supervision? What systems were in place?
The open letter, which appears to be the only statement the school has uttered on the subject, doesn’t really address that. Public comments convince us that this is a real concern. The letter had HMS, in a slight way, trying to defend itself: “Investigators believe that Lodge acted without the knowledge or cooperation of anyone else at HMS or Harvard.”
The school is going to have to address this down the line. That will be complicated by litigation. On June 16, a law firm filed a potential class action on behalf of the families alleging HMS caused them emotional distress. Another suit was filed yesterday.
Photo Credit: ThePhotosite/Shutterstock
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