Little Shop of Horrors

Allen Tyler had a good job looking after corpses that had been donated to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He stored them, chopped them up, packed and shipped the parts. Then he got a wonderful idea: he would start his own enterprise on the side. What's a few toenails among friends?

IN APRIL 2000 ALLEN TYLER made a lot of money in fingernail and toenail sales: $4,380, to be exact. That month his office received a purchase order for a batch of human nails from Watson Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company located in Salt Lake City. After shipping the order, he sent Watson an invoice, requesting that payment be made to him personally and that the check be sent to his home address, in Galveston. Watson had no qualms about that, even though the address was different from the one on its purchase order. Watson’s purchasing agent did, however, make a small adjustment to reflect the fact that, while she had ordered 248 fingernails and 44 toenails, Tyler’s invoice specified slightly different amounts: 256 fingernails and 24 toenails.

Tyler, then 54, worked as the supervisor of the Willed Body Program at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a unit of the state university system that includes a hospital and a medical school. His job was to oversee the inventory of dead bodies that had been willed to the university for scientific research. He numbered and tagged them. He kept some cadavers whole for the medical students and cut the rest into parts. He shipped some of the parts to other institutions. He also wrote invoices for parts and shipping charges, sent whole bodies and body parts to be cremated, returned ashes to the families that requested them, and answered queries from the public about the program. He ordered equipment, such as the “ AN-65 series cadaver lift.” He met the donors in person when they enrolled in the Willed Body Program, and then he encountered those same people again after they died, steering them into the lab to bathe them, shave their heads, and dismember them if required. It was a vocation that required a fair amount of customer contact, which suited him fine. He was personable, even genteel. The balding, barrel-chested Tyler did not crack jokes; he did not raise his voice. In spite of the grim world in which he lived, he had a mild sense of humor: In his office he had a small ceramic-frog doorstop that burped “ ribbit.” He was reliable and hardworking, which is why he had been promoted to supervisor.

That was his official job, anyway. The nails were another matter entirely. They were part of Tyler’s side business as a body-parts consultant and entrepreneur. He had started freelancing several years before, fueled by the scientific-research industry’s booming, $500-million-a-year market for body tissues. Tyler served as a consultant to medical seminars that needed to procure and handle corpses. Business was good. Earlier that same month, he had billed a client $3,500 for cutting up corpses in Colorado Springs. And he had diversified into the equally lucrative trade in toenails and fingernails, which he harvested from dead bodies at UTMB and sold. For a modestly paid government employee, he was doing very well.

He was also headed for trouble. As a result of his capitalist endeavors, last year Tyler found himself at the center of one of the biggest scandals in the willed-body industry of the past century. It began when he testified before a grand jury in April 2002 that, working as a consultant, he had cut up bodies for a Riverside, California, company that had obtained them under false pretenses. (They had not been willed to science.) UTMB was embarassed by that, but it was nothing compared with what happened next. A month later, university officials discovered that Tyler had routed checks to his home that should have gone to the university, and fired him. The implication was that the university had not known that Tyler was conducting his own side business selling parts. Soon after that, the FBI launched an investigation, presumably into the question of whether Tyler had profited illegally from the interstate sale of body parts.

But those were not the only irregularities in Tyler’s work. In July the scandal broke in the pages of the Houston Chronicle and the Galveston County Daily News, which reported not only that Tyler had been fired but that he had mishandled and misidentified donors’ cremains (the products of cremation) that families had requested be returned to them. That same month, more than 70 angry families filed a lawsuit against UTMB, Tyler, and other parties, claiming that they had violated their agreements with willed-body-program donors.

Ever since the story appeared in the local papers , there has been a virtual lockdown on information about the case. Tyler, who remains unindicted, has never commented publicly and refused repeated requests by Texas Monthly for an interview; through his attorney, he denied any wrongdoing. UTMB, citing the many lawsuits against it, has restricted interviews with its willed-body-program staff. The current president of the Anatomical Board of the State of Texas, Ron Philo, who supervises the state’s willed-body programs, has refused to comment on the case. Reconstructing the story thus required pursuing other channels of information, which included: some 20,000 documents that UTMB reluctantly released through a Public Information Act request, hundreds of pages of trial transcripts and lawyers’ interrogatories, and dozens of interviews with sources at UTMB and in the medical and scientific communities in Galveston and elsewhere, as well as with acquaintances of Allen Tyler.

At the end of last year, as the crisis swirled around Tyler and UTMB, the body-parts industry came under the sort of sharp scrutiny it rarely receives. It has long operated in a sort of regulatory twilight, with minimum state oversight and no federal control at all. People began to ask unpleasant questions about what had happened—specifically—to their loved ones after they had died. Few were prepared for the unsettling answers they got.

THE STRANGE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH Allen Tyler worked—the dead side of medecine—is a placefew people want to know anything about. It is a morbid little world of cadavers floating in phenol and glycerin baths, body parts stashed in freezers, FedEx shipments of breasts, knees, and spines, and grisly medical-school

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