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The Legacy Of The First Ever Digital Human Cross-Section

One of the most ambitious and controversial digital preservation projects of its era, the Visible Human Project was a triumph of cutting-edge data storage.

Visible Human Project - digital heritage

The Legacy Of The First Ever Digital Human Cross-Section

Whilst much of the work in digital preservation and data integrity focuses on businesses and the consequences that a breach or loss can cause financially, there are also many triumphs in the field of digital heritage and biotech that can be credited to the power of excellent data management.

One of the most famous cases of this, as well as one of the most ambitious and controversial projects in the history of digital biology, is the Visible Human Project, operated by the United States National Library of Medicine.

Humanity In Thousands Of Slices

The Visible Human Project’s goal was to create a set of high-resolution photographs that provide a cross-section of the human body, created by literally slicing a body into 1871 slices that were one millimetre thick.

Each photograph was captured using both analogue and digital cameras, for a total of 15 gigabytes of data (at a time when most home computers had little more than 1GB of storage space), later increasing to 65GB after the analogue photographs were rescanned.

The project was first conceived in 1986 as part of the Long Range Plan of the NLM, where the books and physical databases would also incorporate a vast library of digital content as well, during a time when the internet was still growing into a recognisable form and 28.8Kb modems were still standard.

The creation of the slices involved encasing the body in a mixture of gelatin and water, before freezing it and grinding 1mm away before taking each photograph. Whilst referred to as slices, the process completely destroyed the body.

There are currently three bodies preserved in this way, but the first and most famous is also the most controversial.

The first Visible Human was a 39-year-old man by the name of Joseph Paul Jernigan from Texas, who had agreed to donate his body for scientific research or medical use.

Where it is controversial is the circumstances surrounding this agreement; Mr Jernigan was convicted of the murder of Edward Hale during a burglary gone wrong in 1981 and was sentenced to death, having been convinced by a prison chaplain to donate his body after he was executed via lethal injection.

This led to ethical questions regarding the informed consent of Mr Jernigan since he was not aware of the Visible Human Project when he agreed to be a part of it after his death. 

The University of Vienna made the strong stance that the images be withdrawn entirely due to their connection to the death penalty.

There were two other Visible Humans. One has remained anonymous but was described as a 59-year-old housewife from Maryland whose husband asked that she could be part of the VHP after she died of a heart attack.

The other is disability rights activist Susan Potter, who agreed to join the project in 2000, believing that she would be dead within a year due to having undergone 26 surgeries and having breast cancer, melanoma and diabetes, as well as injuries caused by a car accident.

She survived 14 more years, dying of pneumonia at the age of 87 in 2015, after which her body was sliced into 27,000 images with considerably more detail than the other two people in the Visible Human Project.

These images are used as part of medical research and their distribution and storage is an example of the power digital storage has to help transform lives and improve medical fields.

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