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18 Heads Found at Airport, O'Hare International Site of Discovery

When working for US Customs at the airport, happening upon a variety of strange or unusual objects is just part of the job description, but 18 frozen human heads?

This, however, is exactly what customs officials encountered at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and the shipment was promptly seized and held there.

Although this may sound similar to a scary movie ending, the truth of the matter involves more paperwork than gore. The heads, in reality, had been used for medical research in Rome, Italy and were being shipped back to Illinois to be cremated. The delay in delivery was due to a mere paperwork mishap.

While the incident spurred many a news headline, it turns out that these shipments are actually quite common. In fact, the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois ships, on average, 450 cadavers, and about a dozen shipments of heads to medical schools worldwide every year.

Director of the association, Paul Dudek, elaborates, "Just last week, we transported eight heads, unembalmed, to Rush University Medical Center for an ophthalmology program." Ophthalmology is just one of the many medical fields which benefit from these often donated heads, which also include dentistry, neurology, plastic surgery, and Alzheimer's research. In addition, corporations in the business of making medical instruments and appliances often implement cadavers in their training and research initiatives.

Once the shipment landed in Chicago, the heads were given to the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office to be stored in the morgue cooler while the customs officials investigated the situation. The investigation, however, was short-lived, as it turned out the heads were accounted for, and the mix-up involved only a minor paperwork problem.

The cremation service for the heads arrived at the Medical Examiner's office to pick up the shipment. Once the federal authorities confirm the service's paperwork, the heads will be entrusted to the cremation service, Mary Paleologos, spokeswoman for the Cook County Medical Examiner's office, explains.

The security measures surrounding the 18 frozen human heads is due to the thorough documentation that must accompany these type of shipments. There is a black market for body parts donated to science, Dudek elaborates, and this paperwork safeguards against any such incidents.

Despite the controversy surrounding this incident, shipments similar to this continue on a regular basis, as Dudek says, "In fact, we sent out a shipment of brains to the University of Texas at Austin last week via UPS."


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