editor's essay

A Brave Bequest

Butterfly on pamphlet

Photo: Sandra Kicman

I wasn’t surprised, when I entered the cemetery, to feel the stir of emotions, the tightening of the throat, the start of tears threatening my composure. I was covering a solemn ceremony honoring the 165 individuals who had donated their bodies to the UB medical school for research in the past two years. I knew I’d be awestruck by their altruism and by the sight of hundreds of friends and family members who had come that June morning to honor their memory. (See “A Most Generous Gift”)

My emotions were already heightened because of a personal connection with the event. My uncle, Robert F. Perry, had donated his body to UB in 1971. I didn’t think he could be physically represented in the cemetery, however, since he had died so long before the first Anatomical Gift Program memorial service was held in 1984. On a whim, as guests milled around after the ceremony at Skinnersville Cemetery adjoining the North Campus, I asked Ray Dannenhoffer (PhD ’87, MA ’82, BA ’79), Anatomical Gift Program director, if I could possibly locate the internment site for my uncle. I was surprised to learn that cremains from those early donors had been maintained until collectively interred in 1984. Dannenhoffer directed me to a headstone where others had already placed flowers. Although individual names weren’t listed, I was excited to find the marker and took a photo to send to his daughters.

My uncle’s gift, though made so long ago, fit right in with the personal stories I heard at the service. He died at 51 of heart disease, and wanted his illness and experience to benefit others in a way that only medical science makes possible. I imagine that his gift also had something to do with his UB connections. He had once headed the university’s food service operation and had worked for Clifford Furnas, the UB chancellor who continued on as president following the SUNY merger in 1962. My uncle was also an amateur sculptor; his bust of Furnas was long displayed in Capen Hall. When he died, my grandmother disagreed on religious grounds with her son’s decision to donate his body, though she later came to terms with it.

Dannenhoffer, in his remarks, acknowledged that some family members might be uneasy with a donation of this magnitude—relinquishing one’s physical remains without knowing whom precisely they will help. But, he said, the bold decisions made by the donors ensure legacies of staggering proportions. “The choice your family members made may not have been comfortable to you, but because it’s what they wanted, they’ll live forever—their donation will help people 50 years from now.”

I will never know specifically how my uncle’s generosity helped medical students of a past era. But as I learn more about this remarkable program, it seems likely that a number of cardiologists now at the peak of their careers—and by this time, physicians they have in turn influenced—might be better doctors than they would have been because of what they learned from my uncle’s body, his disease and his selfless example.

Ann Whitcher Gentzke, Editor

Carol R. Seiken, OTR/L

Dear Ann: I often do not read the UB Alumni magazine, yet for some "divine" reason, I read your essay, A Brave Bequest. I was an occupational therapy student the summer of 1971, taking Gross Anatomy with Dr. Warfel. I do not know if it was your uncle, Robert Perry, whom I had the pleasure of getting to know for those eight weeks. However, I can tell you that our gentleman appeared to be much younger than any of the other folks in the lab that summer. He was muscular and large and very well built. My mother came to visit me that summer, and many years later she told me that the experience changed her perspective on life. As for me, I may not remember all of the muscles and nerves, but I remember the man who allowed me to graduate with a degree that continues to serve me well forty plus years later. Thank you so much for sharing your memories.