Human remains code is unworkable, say scientists

November 21, 2003

Leading academics warned this week that plans to introduce tough regulations governing the use of human remains could seriously damage research.

The final report of the human remains working group, which was published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, recommends that curators of museums and university collections should seek out all potential claimants to body parts from across the world, whether or not such claimants could prove they were direct descendants of the deceased. It calls for the establishment of a licensing body to ensure that consent is obtained for holding all remains.

Leading scientists have attacked the report, saying it could lead to the dismantling of British museums.

Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, said that tracing potential claimants for the 18,000 specimens in the collection - which range from skulls to hair - would leave no time for research.

Dr Foley, a specialist in human evolution, said the collections were not a ghoulish or antiquated hobby, but were vital to science. "We are helping to drive interest in the human genome and how humans grow and develop," he said. "Anthropology is the discipline that tries to put (genetics) into a global perspective."

The Natural History Museum, which houses almost 20,000 human remains, said the report failed to understand the public benefits of research in this area, and dismissed the "elaborate regulatory system" as unworkable.

But Laura Peers, a lecturer curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, stressed that establishing a relationship with source communities was vital, even if it led to the loss of important research material.

Dr Peers consulted the Ojibwe community of Red Lake in Minnesota about hair samples collected in 1925. She discovered the hair was taken from native children in a boarding school run by white authorities, and was associated with attempts to control the Ojibwe community. Tribe members did not want the hair to be used for research.

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