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No. 1125:
The Visible Man

Today, we create a body of knowledge. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1981, 27-year-old Joseph Jernigan committed a robbery. Then he killed a 75-year-old man -- a potential witness. Jernigan was convicted and executed on August 5th, 1993, by lethal injection. Near the end, he said he deserved his punishment. He also bequeathed his still young and healthy body to science.

What science did with the mortal remains of Joseph Jernigan is truly dazzling. David Wheeler tells about it in the Chronicle of Higher Education. First anatomists froze him solid at -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they sliced him, like a loaf of bread, into 1 mm thick sections -- 1,871 of them. After each slice they made a fine-grained photo of his new cross-section. Finally, they digitized all those pictures and loaded the information into a computer.

Joseph Jernigan was about to achieve a remarkable kind of temporal immortality. He'd been reduced from this too-too-solid flesh to 15 gigabytes of electronic ectoplasm. Now it's possible to select, from those bits of data, three-dimensional pictures of any part of his interior and show them from any angle.

Wheeler tells about a trip through the electronic Jernigan. Jernigan was standing with his arms reaching toward Wheeler. Wheeler then moved forward along the ulna and radius, through the elbow and upper arm, into the face, chest and stomach. The spine and the back of the brain looked like a cauliflower on a knobby stick. The journey ended as he emerged from the last of Jernigan's shoulder blades and buttocks.

That can be a pretty harrowing trip. The first time I looked at the images I was grossed out, says a graduate student. But Victor Spitzer, who did the photography, looks at off-white bone, glistening red muscle, and fat, and he simply says, It's gorgeous!

Jernigan has given medicine a reference of normalcy -- against which to compare the sick and wounded in a detail that was once impossible. Project people have already encoded, in even greater detail, the body of a 59-year-old woman. Unfortunately, she died of a heart attack. They don't yet have a premenopausal woman who died in good health. Healthy young people seldom die without significant damage having been done to their bodies.

For now, both sets of images are held in cyberspace by the National Library of Medicine. They're called The Visible Man and The Visible Woman. And those two are serving both clinical medicine and medical instruction in new ways all the time.

So, Wheeler observes, anatomists now look for whom they might next reduce to electrical pulses. But Jernigan was first. And by the information he gave us, he may well have paid his debt to society. The donation of his body has probably saved many lives already. And it represents a whole new means for understanding the terrible complexity -- of human anatomy.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wheeler, D.T., Creating a Body of Knowledge. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 2, 1996, pp. A6-A7, A14.

I am grateful to Judy Myers, UH Library, for providing the Wheeler article and suggesting an episode based upon it.

See the Wikipedia article, Visible Human Project. For images from the Visible Man, see (e.g.) the National Library of Medicine page.

Note Added, March 2, 2015: I originally did this episode in 1996. After its rerun today, I received an email from one Martin Draughon whose website might be of interest: Mr. Draughon's email, which adds much to the story of Paul Joseph Jernigan, follows:

Mr Lienhard,

I would like to take this opportunity to commend you for the piece you did about Paul Joseph Jernigan and the monumental contribution to medical science his executed body gave to the world. I was on death row with "PJ" and knew him personally. I am released now for several years and am a responsible citizen functioning well out here after almost two decades on the row.

I once read a Dallas Morning News article about what was done with PJ's body and the modern miracle of it and the article said he died of natural causes.. That still burns in my mind. PJ paid the ultimate price for his mistakes and crimes and he went to his death with his head held high, knowing this was his only atonement. It did my heart good this morning to hear your piece on the Visible Man and for Paul Joseph Jernigan to finally be recognized. What was done with his body has propelled medical science and research dramatically. My respect for NPR has grown even more for airing this. And for you Dr. Lienhard.

Thank you,

Martin Draughon

PS: after Paul Jernigan's execution and donation of his body to science, some few years later another deathrow prisoner petitioned the governor to be allowed to have all applicable organs donated. He even went so far as to contact Dr. Kevorkian to go to bat for him (which he did). The prisoner's request to donate his organs to those who might need them was denied. That prisoner's name was Johnathan Nobles.