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Fetus found in Ag Sci storage room

March 26, 2009

A human fetus, sitting idly for roughly 40 years, was discovered in a storage room in the basement of the Ag Science building on the UW-River Falls campus. The fetus, a stillborn approximately 18 weeks into development, was found along with a small bone, a neonatal skull and a weathered adult femur.

According to biology professor Karen Klyczek, Rebecca Bronk, a biology lab manager, found the remains while cleaning a storage room full of preserved specimens in mid-February.

“Current biology faculty do not have any information about [the fetus’s] origins,” Klyczek said. “It has not been used for teaching purposes for at least 30 years and we would not have any reason today, so we decided to look into proper options.”

The River Falls Police Department was immediately contacted. Since there was no formal documentation as to the identity or origin of the fetus, a formal investigation into the necessity of possible criminal charges began. A review by the RFPD, city officials and the coroner’s office concluded that the fetus was not the result of foul play, and no charges have been filed.

“We were trying to find information about it. Once we discovered there was no potential for any charges, or anything like that, we turned it over to the University to get proper disposal,” River Falls Police Chief Roger Leque told the Pioneer Press.

Although UWRF has no record of the fetus, retired professor John Hudson said he does remember seeing the remains as early as 1969, Kevin Harter, UWRF director of media relations, said. Other than that, there is no written documentation or any other verbal accounts as to the origins or specific uses of the specimen.

UWRF officials believe the specimen was an anonymous donation, a remnant from an earlier time when it was commonplace for hospitals to send science museums and universities human specimens for use in study and as academic tools, Klyczek said.

“Our best guess is that it was donated to the department by a local physician in the 1930s or 1940s.  At that time it was common for physicians to make donations to colleges and universities. Many biology departments across the country have similar specimens stored or on display,” Klyczek said. “It may have been used to illustrate the process of human development. Chicken embryos were commonly used as a model for animal development, and the human fetus may have been made available for observation and comparison. No testing of any kind would have been done.”

According to Lynn Morgan, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., Mount Holyoke still has the remains of such a collection in storage. Morgan has used the collection as the cornerstone of a several-year long study about the history of human embryo and fetal collecting in early 20th-century America.

“Clinicians regularly saved fetal specimens for teaching and research purposes,Ó Morgan said in her academic paper entitled “The Rise and Demise of a Collection of Human Fetuses at Mount Holyoke College.” “[But] the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 heightened public sensitivities about the ownership and display of anatomical specimens. These are just a few of the reasons given for the destruction of fetal specimens, [along with] the cultural politics of abortion and fetal tissue disposal.”

According to Morgan’s research, the practice of collecting and studying human embryos began in 1913.

“The new Carnegie Institution Department of Embryology, based at Johns Hopkins Medical School under the direction of anatomist and embryologist Franklin Paine Mall, began a systematic effort to encourage medical doctors to save human embryos and fetuses for scientific study,” Morgan wrote. “These specimens served as research materials for scientists working on human embryology, endocrinology and reproductive physiology.”

Soon enough, the practice gained enough prestige that universities began building their own collections for academic purposes.

“By the mid-20th century, it would have been common for nearly every institution of higher learning to have at least a few human fetal specimens in its possession,” Morgan said. “Although some scientists [think] the entire collection should have been disposed of, I think the history of the collecting practice needs to be told,”

The UWRF fetus was returned to the University so it could be properly buried. Tom Weiss, a Catholic deacon at the Newman Center across from campus, handled the burial free of charge.