SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah's Marketing and Communications office is accustomed to handling visits of A-listers such as civil rights leaders or famous authors, as well as announcing significant medical discoveries or sizable gifts.
But the discovery of human remains beneath a historical building on campus on April 20, 2016, posed a challenge like no other.
How did the remains get there? Who were these people?
How would the university share such a sensitive, complex story with the community, or for that matter, the world?
Science writer Paul Gabrielsen and communications specialist Brooke Adams, who had each worked as journalists earlier in their careers, settled on producing a podcast.
"One of the issues that made us think about a podcast is that this was a sensitive topic. So we were able to tell the story and control it a little bit that way," said Adams.
Photography or video seemed inappropriate because the burial included more than 1,000 bones and bone fragments, including skulls. "A podcast clearly avoids that," Gabrielsen said.
Months of research and interviews that Adams and Gabrielsen fit in along with their regular responsibilities at the university culminated in a seven-part podcast: “Secrets of the Campus Cadavers.”
“We wanted to tell the story on our own terms with the team that did this investigation. We worked closely with them and we wanted them to be able to tell their own stories. From early on, it was clear this was a larger story with a lot of different parts and it would be interesting to tell in a more expansive format than just a press release or a media tip. So this podcast gave us a lot of flexibility to tell that story,” Gabrielsen said.
The first episode of the podcast dropped Tuesday, Feb. 6. It and subsequent episodes will be available on Tuesdays through March 20. The free podcast is available on iTunesor on Stitcher and the RSS feed, which can be read by podcast players.
The podcast follows a nearly yearlong investigation into the discovery of the remains and how they ended up beneath one of the university's most historical buildings.
Early on, police determined that the burial site — beneath a section of the George Thomas Building, the former home of Utah Museum of Natural History on Presidents Circle — was not a crime scene.
Nor were the remains those of ancient Native Americans, which is often the case in Utah, the state forensic anthropologist Derinna Kopp told U. officials.
She later determined the remains were those of cadavers that medical students dissected as part of their medical education sometime between 1905 and 1933.
“The main question that always pops into my mind with any set of human remains I look at is — who was this person?” Kopp says in the podcast’s first episode.
It was a question that nagged Adams and Gabrielsen, too. With the help of several experts, they learned that the medical school faculty had close working relationships with area hospitals in the time period.
Adams, a former public information officer for the Utah Department of Corrections, wondered if the people were possibly prison inmates.
“We took a trip out there. I was aware there were these big ledgers that record details about the inmates in this time period,” she said.
Kate Hovanes, a historian with SWCA Environmental Consultants of Salt Lake, researched the history of cadaver use in the 19th and 20th centuries. She also studied how the U.’s medical school obtained and used anatomical cadavers at the time. It appears some were former inmates but not many.
Still, the visit to the prison yielded two noteworthy discoveries.
“Two inmate records specifically note that the bodies were given to the university, presumably for use by the medical school as cadavers,” Hovanes said in the podcast.
Were their remains among the at least 11 people whose remains were part of the collection? All is revealed in the podcast.
The remains were believed to be those of younger adult males, although one appeared to be an older adolescent. Some of the remains revealed signs of arthritis, suggesting the men were laborers. Investigators found a broken bone that was in the process of healing. However the remains also indicated the man had received no medical care for his injury, which spoke to a lack of access and low economic means, Adams said.
How the remains ended up beneath the George Thomas Building is unclear. Lab equipment was unearthed along with the remains, Gabrielsen said.
The podcast also covers modern practices used in the handling of the some 250 bodies donated to the university for anatomical study each year. Now they are cremated and the remains are returned to the donors’ families. In the past, the university has conducted memorial services to honor the individuals.
The podcast gives voice to all who participated in the discovery of the remains and the investigation that followed. They also include:
• Charles Shepherd, the U.’s historical architect. Shepherd discovered the remains and oversaw the U.’s response to the discovery.
• Kelly Beck, archaeologist, SWCA Environmental Consultants. Beck led the excavation of the archaeological site on Presidents Circle and the recovery of the human remains.
• Kerry Peterson, director of the U.’s body donor program. Peterson provided insight into current dissection practices.
• U. medical student Dani Golomb and Department of Anthropology Chairwoman Leslie Knapp also appear.Comment on this story
Adams said she was pleasantly surprised that the visit to the Utah State Prison resulted in finding records about two inmates whose bodies had been turned over to the university, although it is doubtful their remains were those in the collection.
“That surprised me that we actually found them. We hoped we would,” Adams said.
Gabrielsen said working with experts while producing the podcast was eye-opening.
“I was kind of struck by the details that could be learned from the bones. All of the people were focused on the humanity of these people. They’re not bones. They’re people. People owned them,” he said.