At the age of 72, German immigrant Susan Potter was adamant about donating her body to science. Her body would be turned inside out and created into a 3D digital landscape of 6,900 photos for medical students to learn from. In 2015, her wish finally came true. In a story for National Geographic, journalist Cathy Newman details Potter’s journey from living human to “immortal corpse.”
Potter’s body was donated to the National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project, a program started by Vic Spitzer and David Whitlock at the University of Colorado in 1991. At the time, they received a government contract grant to spearhead “data representing a complete normal adult human male and female…from cryo-sectioning…cadavers.” Until Potter came along, the project had studied two cadavers: one 39-year-old male death row inmate and a 59-year-old woman who died from heart disease. The male was sectioned into approximately 2,000 slices that were a millimeter thick, and the female was sliced into 5,000 pieces that were .33 millimeter big.
Potter didn’t just want her body to be studied for pure anatomical purposes; her personality, experiences, and traumas needed to be heard in order to fully understand her body’s narrative. Spitzer spent a lot of time with Potter — showing her the bowls for the polyvinyl alcohol that would prepare her body to be ground up and imaged. She also underwent sonograms and MRI so that Spitzer and his time could get a full analysis of her health history.
On February 16, 2015, Potter died at the age of 87 from pneumonia, approximately 16 years after she had introduced herself to Spitzer and told him she wanted to become a Visible Human. A blade sliced into her torso and cut it into “hair-thin ,63-micron increments,” each of which was photographed. As Newman puts it, “Imagine incrementally sanding a block of wood and photographing the layer of surface grain exposed each cycle. As with a block of wood, what’s left of the corporeal Susan Potter is dust.”
Potter had suffered during her lifetime. She had a double mastectomy, melanoma, spine surgery, diabetes, a hip replacement, ulcers, and had been abandoned by her parents as a child. Her pain is easily identifiable in the images, such as a CT scan showing a possibly dangerous metal stem-and-ball prosthetic in her right hip.
It took two months to cut Potter’s body into 27,000 slices. Now, every angle of tissue, organs, and vessels will be digitally documented with incredible precision and detail, an endeavor that’s expected to take two or three years.