Meet Susan Potter, The Woman Who Will Become The World's Most Advanced Digital Cadaver

In the picture above, a photo of 3-year-old Susan Potter, who was born in Leipzig, Germany, just before WWII, rests atop a CT scan taken upon her death at age 87.  Lynn Johnson / National Geographic

Aliyah Kovner 14 Dec 2018, 16:23

In 2000, a feisty, 72-year-old disabled cancer survivor named Susan Potter wheeled into the office of Dr Victor Spitzer at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and demanded to donate her body to the Visible Human Project. Meaning that she was requesting, following her natural death, for her body to be sawed into thousands of hair-thin sections that would be photographed, digitized, and painstakingly labeled in order to create an immortal online cadaver that could advance medical training and research.

In 2015, Potter passed away from pneumonia at age 87, and during the spring of 2017, her frozen remains were cut into 27,000 slices, each 63-microns thick. As each layer was removed by a seriously sharp carbide blade, a high-resolution image was snapped. The process to create her complete, open-access body map will continue for a year or so, but when completed, Potter’s body will join two previous Visible Humans in becoming the world’s most well-known human forms.

But who was the woman in life? National Geographic has been following Potter and her legacy for 16 years – here is her story. 

 

The Visible Human Project was dreamed up in 1987, but did not get off the ground until 1991, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Dr Spitzer and his late collaborator, Dr David Whitlock, a $720,000 grant to begin work.

The goal was to provide a resource that could be utilized to study normal male and female anatomy in greater detail than flesh-and-blood cadavers, which is how researchers and students have examined physical structures for millennia. On top of the obvious limitation of only being usable for a small number of dissections, cadavers are expensive and not always widely available.

After the funding was acquired, Spitzer and Whitlock needed to find a person who would agree to donate their corporeal self to such an endeavor. In 1993, they got lucky. A convicted murderer from Texas donated his body upon his death by lethal injection and was imaged in 2,000-millimeter-thick sections. 

Their first female Visual Human came along a year later. A 59-year-old who died of heart disease and was sliced into more than 5,000 slices that were 0.33 millimeters thick. 

This is cross-section is of Potter’s head skull, with the brain, nose, and eyes visible. It was taken as her body was sliced, from the crown of the head down to the toes, in Dr Spitzer's cryomacrotome machine. The blue material is the polyvinyl alcohol that the body was immediately encased in after Potter's death. She was then put in a deep freeze for two years before the slicing began. Lynn Johnson / National Geographic

Potter came into the picture when she read about the Visible Human project and fell in love with the concept. Dr Spitzer recalled to the magazine that at first, he did not see the benefit of including a body that had experienced such a rough life (she’d had a double mastectomy, melanoma, spine surgery, diabetes, a hip replacement, and an ulcer), and he refused her assertive donation.  

“But I knew I was lying. I knew that one day we would need to start considering the diseased body,” Spitzer said, given that diseased bodies are what doctors see every day.

When he finally agreed, neither him nor Potter could predict that it would begin a 15-year friendship. Potter, who had believed she would die soon after their meeting in 2000, became a regular at the University of Colorado medical school, where she mentored students about the importance of compassionate care.

Potter poses with some of her University of Colorado medical student 'mentees' at their graduation in May 2009. According to National Geographic, the elderly and health-issue plagued Potter was revitalized by the relationships she formed with students over the 15 years between when she joined the Visible Human Project and her death. Lynn Johnson / National Geographic

The tenacious woman also insisted on seeing the location and equipment that would be used in her eventual dissection and wanted to learn, in exquisite detail, what the process would involve. Once again, she got Spitzer to comply.

And during the 60 days spent painstakingly sawing and photographing her remains in 2017, Spitzer’s team listened to classical music and worked in a room with roses painted over the door – thereby honoring her other two last requests.     

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