People who donate their bodies to science are more likely to be blue collar workers who also regularly give blood, are registered organ donors, and give frequently to charity, according to an international study led by the University of Otago.
The survey of more than 200 people registered in body donor programmes took place during 2010 and involved universities in South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand. The results have just been published in the scientific journal Anatomical Sciences Education.
Study leader and Postdoctoral Fellow with the University's Department of Anatomy, Dr Jon Cornwall, says this is the first study to have examined donors' characteristics in the same year that they registered with a body donation programme. Researchers initiated the study to learn more about the types of people who sign up to donate their bodies.
"While we have many generous individuals wanting to be involved in body donor programmes at present, this may not always be the case. It is important to understand why people make this choice so that if necessary, we can raise programme awareness among the general public."
Those signing up to the programmes in each of the three centres were asked a variety of questions about their family structure, education, rationale for donating, religion, and even their political affiliations.
Individuals registering with body donation programmes were on average 68 years-of-age in New Zealand and 69 years in South Africa, with Irish donors significantly younger at 60 years of age.
Researchers also found the decision to donate was usually made over a long period of time - often considered for up to 10 years or more. In all three centres, professional people were under represented, with blue collar workers more likely to make the choice to donate their bodies for the benefit of science and medical teaching. The proportion of atheist or agnostic donors was also found to be higher than their respective general populations. Of those respondents that did identify with a religion, Christianity was the most dominant.
Most of those surveyed had partners and children of their own, and had a solid family background with siblings. Respondents were also far more likely than others in the general population to donate blood; they were more likely to agree to donate their organs and to give both money and services to charity. Interestingly, most donors held a moderate or centrist political affiliation.
The body donors represented "an extremely altruistic group of individuals," says Dr Cornwall.
"We find that these are extremely charitable people who want to give something back to society; they indicated a willingness to give of their time, their money and other belongings - apparently more so than the general population," he says.
"Most are not alone when they make this decision. They come from solid family structures and consult widely among them, thus contradicting the preconceived notion that body donors are lonely or isolated individuals with no family ties."
Dr Cornwall says he is a little surprised that fewer professionals, including those working in corporate and tertiary education, chose to donate their bodies to science compared to those in less well paid employment.
This prospective study provides the most reliable information on the characteristics of body donors ever gathered.
Dr Cornwall is now leading a larger international study of body donors involving more than a dozen centres around the world. This new study will investigate further how culture and religion may influence whether people donate their body to science.
Co-authors: Professor Mark Stringer (University of Otago), Professor Graham Louw (University of Cape Town), Gary Perry (University College Dublin).
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