Today, we create a body of knowledge. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1981, 27-year-old Joseph
Jernigan committed a robbery. Then he killed a
75-year-old man -- a potential witness. Jernigan
was convicted and executed on August 5th, 1993, by
lethal injection. Near the end, he said he deserved
his punishment. He also bequeathed his still young
and healthy body to science.
What science did with the mortal remains of Joseph
Jernigan is truly dazzling. David Wheeler tells
about it in the Chronicle of Higher
Education. First anatomists froze him solid
at -100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then they sliced him,
like a loaf of bread, into 1 mm thick sections --
1,871 of them. After each slice they made a
fine-grained photo of his new cross-section.
Finally, they digitized all those pictures and
loaded the information into a computer.
Joseph Jernigan was about to achieve a remarkable
kind of temporal immortality. He'd been reduced
from this too-too-solid flesh to 15 gigabytes of
electronic ectoplasm. Now it's possible to select,
from those bits of data, three-dimensional pictures
of any part of his interior and show them from any
Wheeler tells about a trip through the electronic
Jernigan. Jernigan was standing with his arms
reaching toward Wheeler. Wheeler then moved forward
along the ulna and radius, through the elbow and
upper arm, into the face, chest and stomach. The
spine and the back of the brain looked like a
cauliflower on a knobby stick. The journey ended as
he emerged from the last of Jernigan's shoulder
blades and buttocks.
That can be a pretty harrowing trip. The first
time I looked at the images I was grossed out,
says a graduate student. But Victor Spitzer, who
did the photography, looks at off-white bone,
glistening red muscle, and fat, and he simply says,
Jernigan has given medicine a reference of normalcy
-- against which to compare the sick and wounded in
a detail that was once impossible. Project people
have already encoded, in even greater detail, the
body of a 59-year-old woman. Unfortunately, she
died of a heart attack. They don't yet have a
premenopausal woman who died in good health.
Healthy young people seldom die without significant
damage having been done to their bodies.
For now, both sets of images are held in cyberspace
by the National Library of Medicine. They're called
The Visible Man and The Visible
Woman. And those two are serving both clinical
medicine and medical instruction in new ways all
So, Wheeler observes, anatomists now look for whom
they might next reduce to electrical pulses. But
Jernigan was first. And by the information he gave
us, he may well have paid his debt to society. The
donation of his body has probably saved many lives
already. And it represents a whole new means for
understanding the terrible complexity -- of human
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wheeler, D.T., Creating a Body of Knowledge.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb.
2, 1996, pp. A6-A7, A14.
I am grateful to Judy Myers, UH Library, for
providing the Wheeler article and suggesting an
episode based upon it.
See the Wikipedia article, Visible Human Project.
For images from the Visible Man, see (e.g.) the National Library of Medicine page.
Note Added, March 2, 2015: I originally did this episode in 1996. After its
rerun today, I received an email from one Martin Draughon whose website might be of interest: http://www.fdp.dk/martin/.
Mr. Draughon's email, which adds much to the story of Paul Joseph Jernigan, follows:
I would like to take this opportunity to commend you for the piece you did about Paul Joseph Jernigan
and the monumental contribution to medical science his executed body gave to the world. I was on death
row with "PJ" and knew him personally. I am released now for several years and am a responsible citizen
functioning well out here after almost two decades on the row.
I once read a Dallas Morning News article about what was done with PJ's body and the modern
miracle of it and the article said he died of natural causes.. That still burns in my mind. PJ paid
the ultimate price for his mistakes and crimes and he went to his death with his head held high,
knowing this was his only atonement. It did my heart good this morning to hear your piece on the
Visible Man and for Paul Joseph Jernigan to finally be recognized. What was done with his body
has propelled medical science and research dramatically. My respect for NPR has grown even more for
airing this. And for you Dr. Lienhard.
PS: after Paul Jernigan's execution and donation of his body to science, some few years later another
deathrow prisoner petitioned the governor to be allowed to have all applicable organs donated. He
even went so far as to contact Dr. Kevorkian to go to bat for him (which he did). The prisoner's request
to donate his organs to those who might need them was denied. That prisoner's name was Johnathan Nobles.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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