February 1997

Lessons From The Dead

Ted Pysher, MD, Professor of Pathology and Clinical Pediatric Pathologist at Primary Children’s Medical Center, discussed autopsy at the January Humanists of Utah meeting. The autopsy is the prime procedure that moved medicine from the view that Galen and the Greeks had on anatomy and the treatment of disease to current practices.

Medical texts survive from many ancient civilizations, including Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, Chinese, and Old Testament mentions of Hebrews. None of these societies practiced autopsies, and in fact many of them had laws prohibiting postmortem examination. Yet they all had some knowledge of anatomy, perhaps from dissection of animals. The first documented autopsies occurred in Alexandria in the third century. The ruling Ptolemaic Greeks allowed the performance of some autopsies for the study of anatomy and cause of death. There is some evidence of sporadic autopsies being performed during the Middle Ages. One Norwegian king, returning from a Crusade, suffered the loss of many men in a particular town. Thinking that a particular wine caused the deaths, the King had the liver of a pig soaked in the wine and found that it appeared to be damaged. He then had several of the victims dissected and their livers examined to see if they suffered a similar fate. Roger Bacon commended the study of the dead body but did not mention any personal autopsy experience. In 1163, at the Council of Tours, there was an official decree that the Church abhorred blood. It was interpreted to mean that priests could not cut the patient either living or dead.

The earliest record of an autopsy in the New World occurred in 1533 in what is now the Dominican Republic. A set of female Siamese twins died shortly after birth. An autopsy was ordered by the priest to determine if there was one or two souls. The still surviving report indicates that all of the organs were duplicated, resulting in a report of two souls. The father objected because he had to pay for two baptisms.

DaVinci performed at least 30 autopsies and recorded the procedures in great detail. However, because of fear that the Church would ostracize him, he did not publish the results during his lifetime. It was not until the 16th century that routine autopsies were performed. It was found that abnormalities of the organs correlated with diseases the patients had before death. There were several books published documenting autopsies during the 16th and 17th centuries. One of these, published in the 17th century by Bailey, first described diseases as affecting organs instead of the “humors.” Napoleon issued specific instructions that an autopsy be performed on his body and that the information gained be used to help his son.

In the 20th century, we have applied what was learned about anatomy in the past 300 years and moved on the causes and cellular effects of disease. Through the 1960’s, most medical students were required to view autopsies. Since the 1950’s, the autopsy rate has declined dramatically. This is often explained by the argument that advances in technology have eliminated the need for routine autopsies. In fact, unexpected findings occur in as many as 30% of all postmortem examinations. Also, the examination takes a long time, weeks or even months, as compared to minutes to days for other clinical testing.

The main reason for performing an autopsy on children is to try to discover the reason, and therefore clues to future prevention of the cause, of death. Another justification for an autopsy is that it is a final examination that helps to close the book on a person’s life. It can also be used as a quality measurement for hospitals. Standards can be set to a certain level of unexpected findings as a benchmark to measure good practice of medicine for the living.

Autopsies always include saving of small pieces of tissue embedded in paraffin wax blocks. Thin sections are cut, stained and examined microscopically. They are kept indefinitely and can provide sections for many years as new information becomes available. The same is true of specimens removed during surgery.

At the great Renaissance medical school in Padua, the examination room wall is lined with the skulls of former professors who have donated their bodies for dissection by students. Since 1950, 150 new diseases have been identified by autopsy. Necessarily the numbers will decline over time but the need for and value of autopsies will continue for a long time to come.

–Wayne Wilson

Varieties in Humanist Points-of-View

The following article is from the November newsletter published by the Humanists of North Jersey.

In a recent statement, Khoren Arisian comments “I have long felt that the most needlessly corrosive debate that goes on in our own ranks is the pointless polemic between alleged secular and religious humanists.” I disagree with him. There is a basic and significant difference between the two points of view, though they, like all other human outlooks on life, overlap. The distinction has been with us for thousands of years. Plato, as a contemporary, with his pie-in-the-sky “reality,” would now be a religious humanist; Aristotle, a secular humanist. Kant, with his near-divine Categorical Imperatives, would be a religious humanist; Hume, the ultimate skeptic, a secular humanist. William James who accepted that which works as true, would be a religious humanist. Bertrand Russell coldly analyzed the world as it is would be a secular humanist.

True, concerned thinkers hedge their positions. John Dewy, for example, in his awe for Democracy and his aspirations for humanity, leaned toward religious humanism, but in his Quest for Certainty, underneath his typical redundancies and obtuseness, he makes it clear that certainty is an illusion. Dewey was a secularist, but was uncomfortable about it.

It is unfortunate that the composers of The Manifesto (1933) chose the term humanism for their point of view, which was basically an atheistic-agnostic stance, though surrounded with all manner of embroidery to make it less blunt to their Unitarian flocks. The term humanism gets confused with literary and Renaissance humanism, with humanitarianism, and among others, with being humane. Well over twenty years ago, Bette Chambers thought it important to have a New York City phone number for the American Humanist Association; accordingly we listed the AHA in the Manhattan directory, with my personal telephone number. During the two years in which I maintained the line, I received many calls wanting to know how to take care of cats and dogs, and one student called me for a bibliography on the Renaissance; but not one call did I receive about what we know as humanism. The title the “founding fathers” gave us for the proclamation of nontheism was unfortunate, but it has become so thoroughly implanted in our minds that I doubt it can be undone. I am afraid we will have to live with the vagueness and multiple use of the term humanism as a polite designation for a nontheist interpretation of the cosmos.

Khoren Arisian is clearly a religious humanist. He was recently elected president of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists which publishes a quarterly Religious Humanist, He changed the name of the organization to Friends of Religious Humanism, but note that he retained the word “religious.” The Friends of Religious Humanism is the only humanist organization that makes the differentiation between religious and secular in its title. Why retain the title if it is so pointless and corrosive? In the statement quoted above, he writes “the secularization of society doesn’t necessarily entail disappearance of desire or search for that which is holy, of ultimate worth.” No secular humanist would write that.

A secular humanist insists that humanism is not a religion, and does not believe or invent a belief or give allegiance to anything that cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt. A religious humanist, as Arisian puts it, will “invent as well as discover meaning,” and “deliberately structure, craft and focus life so that it makes sense to us.”

There is much overlap in belief between Catholics, Protestants and Jews. All are believers in a personal God and personal immortality. Yet there are also profound differences among them. Therefore, we rarely lump them together as Theists. The difference between religious and secular humanists is also significant and will become increasingly so in the future. It demands further discussion. There is an important place in humanist media for both the Religious Humanist of which Arisian is the current editor, and for Free Inquiry, published by Paul Kurtz and his associates at the Council for Secular Humanism.

Saint Elvis: An Icon for our Time

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

The notion of “saint” Elvis has been explicitly sanctioned not only by the tabloids but also by the Washington Post, says author Gary Vican.

Saints, as charismatic mediating agents between our everyday world and remote, powerful spiritual forces, have existed in all religions, as well as outside conventional religion. In early Christian and present Orthodox religion canonization, a saint has been informally elected by the collective belief and action of his followers. Saints of vastly varying backgrounds and life styles, including those despised by their contemporaries, have been allowed. Furthermore, there has been a profound difference between the image of the saint held dear by his followers, and the historical reality of the individual, who may not even have existed.

Even within the conventional topology of western saints–martyrs, confessors, ascetics, etc., Elvis, in the eyes of his ardent fans, has his place as a martyr. In his vita literature of adoration, we learn that the King’s last thoughts as he lay dying on the floor of his bathroom were, “This must be like what Jesus suffered.” Purged from the King’s factual life history are any evidences of drug abuse, obesity, or paranoiac violence. It speaks instead of a dirt-poor southern boy who rose to fame and glory; of the love of a son for his mother; humility; generosity; superhuman achievement in the face of adversity; profound spiritualism; and painful premature death at the hands of his own fans, whose merciless demands for his entertainment exhausted and ultimately killed him.

Max Weber pointed out that the charismatic person (“saint”) is not identifiable by any specific behavioral or physical characteristics, but rather by how he or she is “treated or endowed” by followers. The charismatic’s behavior may strike non-followers as inappropriate; nevertheless, what counts is not saint-like performance, but audience reception and reaction. Among the ranks of charismatics there exist the likes of Jesus Malverde, a mustachioed brigand who was hanged as a bandit in Culiacan, Mexico in 1909.

Consistent with the “charisma package” of early Christian saints, gradually Elvis began to cultivate latent spiritual and miraculous potentialities; he became an acknowledged healer and a self-proclaimed messenger from God.

The saint has his holy place; this is how we know him and where to find him. A holy place can be the home of an important relic; the site of miraculous waters; his home, where he may still be living; or the place of his bodily remains. The soul of the saint is believed to dwell there. The tourist goes there mostly to see, but the pilgrim has a distinctly tactile notion of travel. The latter wants to see and touch the place where the saint was present in the body. The holy is concentrated there, and its power is susceptible to retransfer through contagion; the pilgrim takes away a package of the holy earth around it. Saints go to the holy place on special annual holy days. A close spiritual bonding occurs among the pilgrims. Shared worship and veneration, encompassing a belief in the resurrection of the saint, take place. The travelers leave something behind to acknowledge publicly their encounter with their spiritual “friend”; this may be an elaborate custom-made image set up in a prominent place, a bracelet, a ring, a tiara, a plaited girdle and belt, a simple greeting or prayer drawn on an available surface, or graffiti. All of the above elements of saint adoration are present in the pilgrimages to Graceland, the holy place of Elvis veneration. Yet Elvis’ “sainthood” is strikingly different from the conventional Christian sort in one respect. His role is not seen as being an advocate before God.

Vikan concludes, “As the early Christian saint was a product of and a window upon his world, so also is Elvis Presley,” In the words of his friend, Anna Norman, “Elvis, you’ve become such an icon for our time.”