Gwen Szent-Gyorgyi spent her working years as a lab technician, immersed in science. So it wasn't really a surprise to her family when she said she planned to send her body to Harvard Medical School after her death.
That wish was fulfilled in January 2017, when Szent-Gyorgyi died at age 87.
“It was really important to her to donate her body to science and to students and to be knowing that, even to the end, she could contribute to science,” her daughter, Lara Szent-Gyorgyi, said.
She felt at peace with her mother’s death and that decision. Then came this week.
News broke that the Harvard morgue’s longtime manager, Cedric Lodge, and his wife Denise allegedly sold off body parts — skin, bones, brains — from the bodies of donors.
Prosecutors say Lodge even allowed potential customers inside the morgue to pick out which parts they wanted. Szent-Gyorgyi doesn't yet know if her mother's body was affected. But she is horrified.
“Just thinking of the bodies lying there, so vulnerable,” she said. “Even after death, that she could be dehumanized is appalling.”
She is still waiting on a response from Harvard about whether her mother’s body was one of those allegedly stolen by Lodge. Harvard set up a hotline and has sent out letters to families of people who donated their bodies to the program.
Harvard Medical School hasn’t said how many people it’s reached out to so far, or how many bodies were involved in the alleged thefts.
Szent-Gyorgyi wants more answers from Harvard.
“I’m angry at the medical school,” she said. “What are they going to do differently to prevent this from happening again?”
Medical school morgues have no state or federal oversight, making them vulnerable to thefts, experts say, and a shadowy underworld of profiteers.
Already, one person has filed a lawsuit against Harvard over the alleged mishandling of his mother’s remains. Others are still grappling with the allegations.
Matthew Wilgo’s dad, Henry, had his body sent to Harvard after he died in 2021.
“It was just always one of his dreams,” Wilgo said. “He never wanted to be a burden to anybody.”
Wilgo got a letter from Harvard this week, saying the school doesn’t believe his dad’s body was one of those prosecutors say were picked apart and sold. But it’s still unsettling. He’s thinking about all the other people out there learning their loved ones’ bodies may have been mistreated.
“This is going to cause unimaginable grief for many families out there,” he said. “I just can't imagine getting that letter because that's horrific. It's despicable.”
Szent-Gyorgyi said she's not sure how she’ll tell her teenage children about what happened at Harvard. She’s trying to keep her focus on the happy memories of their Gran. Her mom’s loud and enthusiastic laugh. Her love of the ocean. The time she spent perfecting her fudge recipe.
“Fundamentally, this person violated my mother's dying wish,” she said. “She wanted to make one last contribution to science. And they defiled that.”
This segment aired on June 16, 2023.