Skeletons in the closet

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes frequently to the Chico News & Review.

For the 30th CN&R anniversary, I’m revisiting my first article for the newspaper, a 1984 yarn about human skeletons and Chico State’s anatomy lab.

The lead read: “It surprised Prof Beverly Marcum, a CSUC anatomy instructor, when the Ward’s natural science supply house salesman recently came around pushing repairs and replacement parts, not new skeletons.

“To get down to the bare bones of the matter, dealers have the jitters because their skeleton supply closets are nearly bare. India, the almost exclusive world source for human frames, slapped an export ban on them last year, which places a premium on fixing those in use. India grew tired of its so-called Third World reputation as the world’s boneyard and shut down the ghoulish industry—about 10 companies centered in Calcutta—that chemically rendered out cadavers. A very few are available from Borneo and Bangladesh.”

Marcus did order some repairs such as stitching and replacement bones—skulls were already on indefinite back order—but the work cost hundreds of dollars because of shipping to New York, where only three people were masters of the dying trade. The job included cleaning and bleaching bones that had become yellow or even brown with use.

It seemed most university labs were turning to die-cast plastic models that cost less than half the $800 price tag for a new set of very scarce bones. The best plastic models came from West Germany, yet they failed to measure up perfectly. As the rep said, “When it comes to making skeletons, nobody does it as well as the specter with the scythe [the Grim Reaper].” The plastic variety lacked individual variations and dimensional stability. Further, plastic models couldn’t replicate subtle details such as contours where muscles were attached.

A top-of-the-line plastic model mimicked a natural skeleton, in that it was a hanging model with stitched joints, a spring-loaded jaw with a full set of teeth, painted parts and a storage cabinet with a slide-out top rail attached to the skull. The Germans were at the time working on an extremely high-quality plastic skeleton to let them maintain their competitive edge.

Although Marcum had a few boxes of spare bones rattling around, she could see plastic in the future. She was right, of course. Authenticity has become a rarity.

At the time I enjoyed sharing Marcus’ prescience with readers. Since then I’ve written many stories for this paper, each in its own way trying to distinguish between the plastic and the organic, the inauthentic and the real, the harmful and the helpful. That’s what the CN&R also tries to do, week after week for 30 years now. Thanks for reading.