Julia and Tyler Burch
Julia and Tyler Burch

They met as students at Guelph in the Sixties. And ultimately, Tyler and Julia Burch plan to be returned to campus to help educate future students in the U of G human anatomy lab. This month, the couple became the first living donors to publicly announce plans to join the University’s human body donation program.

Speaking during an evening service held in War Memorial Hall to honour this year’s donors, Tyler Burch, a 1967 agriculture graduate, said: “Being a donor is a way for us to return one last time to the university that brought us together in the first place.”

The service included spoken tributes and music by U of G students, remarks by program and University administrators, and a ceremonial candle-lighting by students in this year’s human anatomy class. A similar service held each spring by the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences (HHNS) recognizes and thanks donors, says HHNS professor Lorraine Jadeski, director of the human anatomy program.

Guelph’s year-long course — begun in the 1960s — allows more than 200 undergraduates in human kinetics and biomedical science to conduct full-body dissections each year, says anatomy technician Premila Sathasivam. Typically, students must wait until attending professional schools before getting a chance to dissect a human cadaver.

A compelling moment during the service came when the Burches, both 65 this year, spoke about their decision to donate their bodies to the program.

It had been Julia’s childhood dream to become a doctor. Instead, she earned a B.H.Sc. in 1968, one year after getting married. She and her husband became high school teachers. Now retired, they live near Peterborough, Ont.

They called their alma mater after reading an article about the anatomy program in The Portico alumni magazine (“The Last Great Gift,” Winter 2009 issue).

“I read that many students who take the anatomy course pursue careers in the health sciences,” Julia told the gathering. “Maybe one of the students who benefits from our contribution will become a doctor.”

Their son, David, a 1997 human kinetics grad, had taken the course here. Says Julia: “Somebody donated their body so he could study a cadaver, so we should do the same.”

The couple attended the 2009 memorial service, where students’ heartfelt comments about the course reinforced their decision.

Tyler says they hope to help meet the University’s growing need for donors. Most of the bodies — about 20 each year — still come from medical schools. But those schools increasingly need more of their own teaching resources. Says Jadeski: “Access to an adequate number of donors is our major problem.”

Guelph began its own body donation program in 2006. That program received one body donation last year and five in 2009.

Besides students in the human anatomy class, the lab also provides short courses to about 2,000 students in health-care programs at private colleges. Other lab regulars include students from the University of Guelph-Humber kinesiology program and visiting high school students under the lab’s outreach program.

Early this year, the lab moved from its longtime home in the Powell Building to newly renovated space in the Ontario Veterinary College. Among its amenities, the new lab affords more flexible teaching space and boasts improved lighting and ventilation.

“We focus on hands-on learning, and the lab is designed to do that,” says Jadeski. “You can tailor any space to be perfect for whatever group is coming in.”