The Anatomy Act: Contemporary challenges (1)

“Since the enactment of the Anatomy Act, many developments have taken place which necessitates a revision or an amendment. The world has changed so much that aging statutes certainly need to be revisited. It is my view that the law is archaic and needs an overhaul”.



THE examination of the dead to gain knowledge of the living body was first practiced extensively in ancient Egypt and since then, the practice has not really changed. It is an important part of the training of many medical professionals. All generations of medical students study the structure of the human body to understand how it functions and how body functions are altered by disease. Knowledge of anatomy is essential for any person who trains in a field requiring knowledge of the human body. I first encountered anatomy sometime in the 1940’s as an elementary school pupil. In those days, we were taught subjects such as nature study, hygiene and First Aid. We read books like “Evans Hygiene”. In the course of studying these courses, we had to learn about the human skeleton, the functions of internal organs and their locations in the human body which we were taught to draw. For all of us it was useful knowledge because in those days we interacted with many people with infectious or communicable diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis, smallpox etc; and the knowledge of anatomy which we acquired helped us to administer first aid when bitten by a snake in the farm, to know where exactly to tie the tourniquet and to make small incisions to bleed out the venom. I am not sure that such courses are taught in elementary or primary schools of the day.

Anatomy is useful; it is applicable to all persons who plan on working in healthcare especially medical students, massage therapists, midwives, dentists, nurses, sports scientists, emergency workers, public health practitioners etc. The more such a person knows about how the human body works, the more proficient he will be. Any person who is dedicated to restoring patients’ health and vitality will first have an understanding of anatomy. Anatomy can be learned in various ways such as through textbooks, videos, models and classroom courses. But it is not difficult to see that learning hands on with an actual body will be the most effective method. An understanding of anatomy will help even the non-medical professional to take care of himself and know why; when he feels a back pain for instance it may be connected to bad posture.

The Anatomy Act, A16 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, is a statute which regulates schools of Anatomy, permits medical practitioners, superintendents of schools of anatomy, teachers in such schools or any student attending such school to anatomically examine or dissect received bodies. It came into force in March, 1933 and has since then remained in force as the only regulatory instrument with regard to its sphere of operation in Nigeria. Obviously, many new developments have taken place in all fields of human endeavour and the law must keep with the pace as law is dynamic and changes constantly due to changes in society such as new discoveries, needs, and obsolescence. In the eight or so decades since the Act came into force, many developments such as organ transplant, and improved methods of confirming the death of a person, improved massage methods, a broadening of health sciences generally and massive improvements in anatomical examination practices among many others. I presume that these changes are not altogether unknown to the members of the Anatomical society of Nigeria. This must be the reasoning behind the theme of the 2016 conference which indeed is the title of this paper. I have to warn however that rather than approach the discourse from a medical or scientific perspective alone, I have taken the liberty to fuse the scientific aspect with a legal perspective in order to facilitate a robust analysis.



The Anatomy Act is divided into 12 Sections.

The principal provision of the Act is S.6 which permits certain persons to receive, or having lawful possession of a body, to examine anatomically, the body of any person deceased provided that it is permitted by a person who had at the time, lawful possession of the body and who had power pursuant to the provisions of the Act to permit or cause the body to be examined, a certificate as in S.5 (1-2) of the Act, stating cause of death accompanying such a body.

The Act also provides for offences for contravention of the provisions of the Act.



  1. Uncertainty

There is no doubt that the Anatomy Act has provided for the needs of physicians, surgeons and students by giving them legal access to bodies. However, its provisions still remain unclear in certain areas. If you look at its provision for the bequest of bodies, you will immediately see that it remains plagued by uncertainty. For example, upon a reading of S.4 of the Anatomy Act, It becomes apparent that it did not provide a complete and reliable procedure for donation of bodies. This area allows for conflict because S.4 of the Act deals with persons who direct that their bodies be examined anatomically after death, meaning that; persons who wish to advance medicine by allowing their bodies to be anatomically examined could bequeath the body to an anatomical institution either in writing at anytime during his life or verbally in the presence of two persons. While this seems clear on the face of it that an explicit written bequest should be incontrovertible, closer examination reveals that such a bequest could be rejected by the surviving family who may veto the potential donation then direct that such body be interred without examination, thus defeating the purpose of such a bequest. This situation means that not all bodies which are in fact bequeathed to a School of anatomy will get to such a school. This may hinder the development of medicine or training for students of medicine as it may cause decline in number of available bodies for anatomical examinations. Since the enactment of the Anatomy Act, many developments have taken place which necessitates a revision or an amendment. The world has changed so much that aging statutes certainly need to be revisited. It is my view that the law is archaic and needs an overhaul.

To be continued…