There were many unforgettable aspects to My Dead Body (Channel 4), the televised dissection of a young woman named Toni Crews. One of them was the moment when the top of Crews’s skull was wrenched off to reveal the brain within. It made a sound that I am simply unable to describe, but which caused the audience of medical students to gasp in shock.
It sounds gruesome. And yet Crews’s body was treated with great respect, which may seem an odd thing to say about someone being cut up in front of us. This was no exercise in voyeurism. Crews was the first person in Britain to donate her body to science for public display, waiving her right to anonymity. A mother of two young children, she died aged just 30, after a rare cancer of the lacrimal gland spread throughout her body. Her parents supported her wishes, although anyone in their position would have misgivings. How brave it was of them to appear on camera here.
The programme was not for the fainthearted. Most of us have never seen a dead body, certainly not like this. Crews looked unrecognisable from the photographs we saw of her, and really looked very unlike a living person, her body waxy and swollen. With no fanfare, the professor of anatomy, Claire Smith, began cutting into her skull. The filming was done with restraint – it was less graphic than footage of hospital operations, for example, which are commonplace on television – and we were able to follow different procedures, such as the slicing of Crews’s brain and the removal of her eye socket.
Students, both in the room and watching on a screen, were able to see the tumours inside Crews’s body and to track the course of the cancer. The team counted over 100 small tumours in her abdomen alone. What a cruel disease, robbing this young woman of a life with her family. The dissection scenes were interspersed with Crews’s own words, taken from her diary entries and social media posts, with her voice recreated using AI technology.
At the end of the programme, we heard the letters she had written for her children to read after her death, urging them to be kind, happy and grateful.
Crews’s donation was an incredible, selfless gift. It also clearly had a profound impact on the medical professionals, some of whom were shown in tears after the body was taken away for the final time. It was a remarkable piece of television, and Crews has left a remarkable legacy.