University of Pennsylvanina

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In the early 1990s, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office was in hot water over harvesting the brains of more than two dozen deceased people and sending them to the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school without familial consent.

After the controversy, the city vowed to reexamine and update its protocols.

Three decades later, however, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office and Penn Museum have launched internal investigations over misuse and mishandling of the remains of people killed in the MOVE bombing, without proper consent.

The ’90s were a generally fraught time for the MEO, which falls under Philly’s Department of Public Health.

Between December 1990 and May 1991, the medical examiner sent 26 human brains to a professor for study by his students. When a reporter found out, and tracked down and informed the affected families, it sparked a series of lawsuits.

In August 1994, a media report revealed MEO staff had sent 36 unclaimed bodies to a school for funeral directors, even after the family of one of the deceased said “the city had no right.”

In October of that same year, news broke that the MEO had removed the eyes of several babies and toddlers — most of them abuse victims — without kin consent, and sent the organs to West Philadelphia’s Scheie Eye Institute.

Later that month, a news report shared that the Medical Examiner’s Office had lent 38 bodies of homicide and young abuse victims to the Graduate Hospital Imaging Center over a 13-month period so researchers could test new equipment.

In each of those latter three cases, the city defended its practices mostly by saying the work was done as part of legally permissible autopsies. Experts debated the accuracy of that assessment.

But in the case of the two dozen brains, actual court filings rained down, with the city, individual medical examiners, and UPenn all named as defendants.

Shoddy recordkeeping, lawsuits settled out of court

Former Inquirer reporter Walter F. Roche in 1992 first reported on the arrangement between Penn professor Alan Rosenquist and then-Deputy Medical Examiner Ian Hood.

Of the 26 brains sent to Penn over a six month period, half were shipped without the approval of the university’s review board, a requirement under federal law. In fact, the duo didn’t even compose a letter seeking approval until January 1991, after the partnership had already begun.

In the request for approval, Rosenquist made clear the brain specimens were to be studied by his students, and medical examiner Hood called the arrangement mutually beneficial, because of its educational purposes.

The families of the deceased said they were never notified. Many found out their kin had been affected only after being reached by a reporter.

In one case, a woman named Doris Jackson who had been given to believe her son’s brain was sent out for study had his body exhumed — only to discover it had not been removed.

The City of Philadelphia and University of Pennsylvania settled most of the lawsuits, including Jackson’s, for undisclosed amounts, according to court records. One Inquirer article from the time mentioned a figure for one settlement around $68,000.

Despite the following promises of reform, the shoddy recordkeeping that plagued the Medical Examiner’s Office was apparently not ameliorated.

As recently as 2017, when former Health Commissioner Tom Farley authorized the disposal of the remains of MOVE members killed in the 1985 bombing, his orders were not followed. That revelation only came out this spring, after the box containing the remains was identified by a single health department employee.

After Farley resigned over the scandal, Mayor Jim Kenney vowed any legacy of discombobulation inside the Medical Examiner’s Office would stop with him.

That was back in April. As of yet, there has been no change to MEO policies in this regard, city spokesperson Sarah Peterson confirmed.

Said Peterson: “[T]he investigation that we are undertaking, of which examining the relevant policies is a component, is expected to take approximately six months to complete.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...