Those who donate their bodies to science are critical to McMaster’s Education Program in Anatomy. Most of those who come to the lab as cadavers – “teaching” – have lived long and full lives. They are people like Bill, Rosa, and Fern
Jon Wells, The Hamilton Spectator
The human body has long been afforded symbolism after death; its burial place marked with stones bearing scripture and poetry, or cremated remains sprinkled in meaningful places.
Donating one’s body to McMaster’s anatomy program carries different symbolism, as an extension of impact after death, in a way that is both tangible and unknown.
In that sense it differs from organ donation, where a specific patient directly benefits from the gift.
Choosing, in life, to give your body to science for research and teaching through dissection requires a special kind of generosity. It requires, perhaps, a mentality to separate your living self from the vessel the body becomes at death.
Barb Eggers is 50 and plans to live many more years but has signed her body bequeathal papers.
She has a friend whose husband wanted to donate, but when he died his body was not accepted by the anatomy program because he had an infectious disease.
“That got me wondering about it, and I thought, why not?” says Eggers. “I could help doctors become better doctors.”
She grew up in Westdale and lives on the central Mountain with her husband, Juergen, and chocolate Labradors Emma and Journey. She is a project manager in the telecom industry, and a practical woman who does not couch her words.
“To me, after death, it’s just a body. And I won’t be using it anymore.”
Her husband would like to donate organs, but not his body. He has no qualms with her doing it, though.
“No, because it’s not his body,” she says.
Before registering, Barb Eggers spoke with Patricia Hartnett, the anatomy program’s bequeathal co-ordinator.
It’s a difficult thing, Hartnett says, when she must tell a family the lab cannot accept the body of a loved one because reserves are full, among other reasons.
“We hate to be closed,” she says. “It is the greatest gift you can give. Our body is really the only thing that is ours.”
One of Hartnett’s most emotional conversations was with a woman who had a young family and who wanted to sign donation papers. The woman said doctors told her she had about one year to live.
“There were a lot of tears.”
She was the exception, a woman donating to the lab in middle age.
Donors are usually at least in their 80s and have lived full lives. And some decide to donate with a special appreciation that it all might well have ended long ago.
Athenia torpedoed: Local people on it
The headline on Sept. 4, 1939, ran in the evening edition of The Hamilton Spectator, one day after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and six days before Canada followed suit.
A German submarine sank the passenger liner at dawn off the northwest coast of Scotland soon after it departed for Montreal, killing 128 passengers. It was the first British ship sunk in the war.
The Spectator listed 10 Hamilton residents on board, including Maggie Jamieson, who had been visiting relatives in Aberdeen, along with her 10-year old son Billy.
Maggie had been on deck and knocked unconscious by the impact, breaking ribs and teeth. Most of those killed were on the lower decks – that’s where Billy was, showing off his new rubber boots, wrote Max Caufield in his book, “A Night of Terror.”
Somehow, Billy survived the blast, aided by a wounded steward, who hoisted the boy to an upper deck where he found Maggie.
Their lifeboat plummeted heavily into the sea, nearly sinking. Billy used his boots to help bail water that was darkened with oil from the wounded ship.
In the lifeboat, Maggie sang a Sunday school tune for the survivors, wrote Caufield, “and got a shout of approval from Quartermaster Graham: ‘Keep it up, lady.’”
They drifted 12 hours in the cold. Maggie said that another woman bailed water while a ship stewardess held her baby. Just before they were rescued, she asked how her baby was.
“The stewardess didn’t say anything but we knew the baby was dead. (And then) the woman jumped overboard and drowned.”
A month later, when Maggie and Billy returned to Hamilton, the newspaper ran a picture: young Billy wearing a tweed jacket and tie, eyes narrowed, a restrained smile, looking as though the ordeal had aged him.
Seventy-six years later, William (Bill) Jamieson lay in his bed in St. Joseph’s Health Care, the journey nearly over.
“He was a man – a survivor, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather,” says his daughter, Pamela. “He worked hard, provided for his family, and always volunteered, always tried to help others.”
Born on Christmas Day and raised in West Hamilton, in his teens Bill Jamieson took off out west alone by train. When he returned he worked at the Royal Connaught, then as a police officer, and for many years at Stelco.
He lived in Dundas and golfed to a scratch handicap with his unusual cross-handed grip. He was active at McMaster University Medical Centre, where he volunteered for research studies and helped at the children’s hospital delivering supplies, even though it broke his heart to see young patients struggling.
He thought about the last act of volunteering he wanted to do. And in 2013, he wrote a letter to McMaster’s anatomy program.
“Dear Mr. Jamieson,” read the reply letter. “A number of people make arrangements to leave their bodies for anatomical studies thereby performing a unique type of service after their death.”
Jamieson left his family a detailed to-do list.
“The university will pick up my body,” he wrote. “They also have the right to reject the body. In that event please contact Affordable Burial Service … In keeping with my wishes there will be no service, I am adamant in that regard. If the university accepts my body they will provide you with copies of the death certificate … Love you, Bill”
He had a pacemaker and, late in life, fought cancer and emphysema, and pneumonia when, last March, at 86, he fell at home and was taken to St. Joe’s. His wife, Iris, who is 91, was at his side.
Many decades ago his persistence had paid off with her, overcoming an age gap and winning her heart dancing at the Summer Gardens in Port Dover, the 6-foot-2 Jamieson twirling petite Iris.
“Boy, could he ever dance,” she says. “You just floated.”
His family gathered in the hospital room. His daughter Pamela, a woman with a big heart who wears her emotions easily, sang his favourite songs, among them, Sinatra’s “My Way.”
When Pamela heard that his wish to donate his body would be granted, joy rippled through her. She felt as though her dad was soaring. She made a decision: one day she would be a donor, too.
In his palliative care room Bill Jamieson fought, faded and, near the end, on a Sunday morning just before sunrise, when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to utter another word, took his wife’s hand.
“Iris, I love you,” he said.
A baby wiggles his bare toes in his mother’s arms, as others stand in slivers of shade on a hot morning in Hamilton Cemetery.
“We meet here, four weeks to the day before Rosa would have turned 100 years old,” says John Parry, Rosa Parry’s nephew. “But what a 99 years.”
In August, the task of presiding over Rosa’s interment service at the family stone was taken on by John, a man with a gentlemanly and courtly air, as though he is from another era.
Rosa Evelyn Parry was born at home on Bay Street South in Hamilton in 1915. Her interest in medicine, and donating her body to science, came from her father, Dr. John Parry, who answered emergency phone calls in the dining room, and sometimes performed surgeries on kitchen tables in the country, illuminated by his car headlights through the window.
Rosa lived in that house 60 years before moving to an apartment on Herkimer at Bay, and then Bruce Street. She ran a little gift store called Paper Plus at James and Young streets.
She was a tall, striking woman, her looks matched by a firecracker personality. She spoke her mind, did bang-on impressions, poked fun at everyone including herself, and was a great cook.
She played at Hamilton Golf and Country Club and twice a year piled in a car with her sisters Marg and Betty – Marg wore white gloves wherever she went – and headed to Pinehurst, N.C., to play the iconic No. 2 course.
Those trips continued into her 80s, with John Deacon at the wheel, who was one of many doctors in the family, and who had married one of Rosa’s grandnieces.
Rosa sat up front in his car, typically knitting a blanket for one of the kids.
“She’d put her feet up on the dashboard,” he says, “and laugh most of the way down.”
Rosa had two loves in her life but never married. She called herself an “unclaimed treasure.”
When visiting family she never kissed, saying that she was saving herself for that one special person. Instead she would purse her lips and say “CYK,” which meant “consider yourself kissed.”
Years ago, her nephew John Parry was visiting at Rosa’s duplex on Bruce Street when she collected her mail.
Donating to McMaster’s Anatomy Program
To obtain information or a Donation of Body to School of Anatomy form, write:
Education Program in Anatomy
1280 Main St. West, HSC 1R1
Hamilton ON L8S 4K1
All registered donors are not necessarily accepted, for reasons including the health and size of the body. If you register to donate, make sure your wishes are clear to your family or executor.
McMaster’s Education Program in Anatomy receives about 30 to 50 body donations a year. Other universities that use cadavers more widely among medical students receive 200-300 a year.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said, opening the McMaster-sealed envelope. “They’re going to take me when I’m gone.”
But she lived another 20 years. There was a chance the anatomy lab would be full and they wouldn’t accept her.
During her last days, John Deacon visited Rosa at her retirement home in Simcoe. She had not been well. She had been speaking aloud to her late mother, saying she wanted to be with her. Before leaving, Deacon took Rosa’s hand. Could she understand what he was saying, he wondered?
“Consider yourself kissed,” he said with a smile, and she squeezed his hand.
When Rosa died last year, John Parry, who was her power of attorney, was nervous. Would McMaster take her? And what would become of her if they did? He knew little about the program.
He received a call from an anatomy lab staffer who picked up Rosa’s body at the home.
“Don’t worry John, she’s in good hands,” the voice said. “We will take good care of her.”
John Parry felt the worry begin to wash away.
And then, later, he spoke on the phone with Patricia Hartnett at Mac.
“Rosa is now teaching at McMaster,” she told him.
He smiled. Teaching at McMaster. Rosa would have loved that.
Unclaimed, no more.
His granddaughter, Gillian, had an opportunity to attend a school trip to France organized by her high school, to mark D-Day’s 70th anniversary.
“She has to go,” he told his daughter, Pam Young.
“Yes, she does,” Pam said.
You never took the captain’s words lightly. And that was also true of his wish that his body be donated to McMaster.
“It was a lifelong command of his, that his body would do some good when he died,” says Pam. “He thought his body would tell some interesting stories.”
He was born in Drummondville, Que., Jean Lucien Fernand Nobert. Growing up, he loved the Montreal Canadiens and had his eye on an Anglo girl, Hilda, he gave up his seat to on the school bus each day.
Captain Nobert served in the Second World War in the CANLOAN program that sent Canadian soldiers to fight in British units – in Fern’s case, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers Regiment, where he experienced his first cup of tea, and later enemy machine gunfire when he landed on D-Day.
A couple of days after landing at Normandy he was wounded, a bullet piercing his leg after passing through a pocket case holding his map.
“I saw the hole in the case,” says Pam.
It could have been worse. He was shot in the foot as well while jumping on the back of an ammunition truck as it raced away, but the bullet embedded harmlessly in the sole of his boot.
He was evacuated to England and later rejoined the fight in Norway. After the war he married Hilda Norris, the girl from the school bus. (Hilda also served, as a nurse in the RCAF. She died in 2010.)
Fern worked in the pulp and paper industry, moved the family around Quebec and New Brunswick, and had one child. His last post was living in Pam’s house in the country north of Waterdown with a panoramic valley view.
In the spring of 2014, as the D-Day anniversary approached, he knew he wasn’t strong enough to travel to France with Gillian, who was in Grade 10 at John F. Ross high school in Guelph.
Fern Nobert had hoped to reach 100 but died at 94 on May 1. To the end, his mind was sharp as a soldier’s salute. He spoke with his family of their cottage at Ile Cachee, Que.; of grandkids Rachael and Gillian, and the Canadiens’ playoff series opener against arch-enemy Bruins that evening.
He died one month before the school trip, but there was never a doubt where Gillian would be on June 6: marching on Juno Beach in Normandy with students and veterans. She was the one with tears in her eyes, carrying the Canadian flag and her grandfather’s regiment pin.
Would McMaster accept him? As though fate followed the captain’s final order, “they found a space to tuck him in,” Pam says.
She wrote in her eulogy that she hoped anatomy students would take a good look at his hands (“they could tie fishing flies, fix broken toys, pull colourful ribbons from shirt pockets to keep granddaughters amused”), and heart (“if you needed something from Dad, it was yours”) and his brain (“he was always in search of new knowledge.”)
Last spring, Pam Young opened a letter from McMaster.
“On behalf of the faculty and staff in the Education Program in Anatomy, we wish to invite you and your family to our Service of Gratitude to remember, with thanks, your personal gift for the betterment of health education.”
John Parry received the letter, too. So did Iris Jamieson. So did family members representing 35 other donors.
It was a chance to say final goodbyes to Bill, Rosa, and Fern – and meet students face to face.
905-526-3515 | @jonjwells