Last week's disturbing news that the Harvard Medical School morgue director had allegedly been selling body parts from donated cadavers has shocked the Harvard community and beyond. Morgue director Cedric Lodge was on the receiving end of federal charges last Wednesday after he allegedly sold skin, brains, bones and other body parts to local buyers. The people who allegedly bought the body parts included the owner of a curiosity store in Peabody and an individual who wanted to cure and tan human skin.

The story has brought the world of illicit body parts sales into the spotlight. John Troyer, former director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath in Britain, has studied the legal and illegal trade in human body parts. Troyer's acclaimed book, "Technologies of the Human Corpse," takes stock of the evolution of the value and significance of the dead human body. Troyer spoke with GBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Arun Rath: When this story first broke, right away I thought of your book, which I just recently read, because you spend a while talking about the global trade, as you call it, in human body parts. So first, give us a bit of context. This scandal seems fresh and outrageous to all of us, but to you, this is not new, right?

John Troyer: Absolutely not. This legal case, the one that has now emerged with Harvard, is part of a long line of cases that stretches back many, many centuries. There have been cases at UCLA. There have been cases involving independent buyers and sellers. This is part and parcel of a series of cases that have gone on for a number of years.

Rath: The reason for this is that the human body is valuable. So let's talk about the market for body parts that you've written about, because there's a medical market that's obviously meant to reuse the parts for living humans. But then there's also what we heard about here at Harvard, apparently a collector's market. The woman accused in Peabody had an oddity store. To start off with, is there any overlap? For lack of a better term, how big is the market share for each of these these markets in human body parts?

Troyer: That's a great question. As I understand it, and as I've read through the indictment, it looks to me as if the majority of the sales were for novelty items or for oddity items, as they're called sometimes - pieces that people would want to display, not for the biomaterials that would be used in, say, medical devices. There are a lot of sales of that material to companies that manufacture these biomedical products, oftentimes from brokers or what are referred to as body brokers who could never really provide a clear provenance on where the cadavers were from. But then, the companies were necessarily asking.

This is a different situation where I think what has happened here, as I understand it, is the body parts, which is a laundry list of everything from limbs, to brains, hearts, and internal organs, were being sold for preparation for display purposes. In one case there's a selling of human skin and that was being done for the purposes of preserving a tattoo, and this was then sold further on. So in one odd twist, if I can point out an odd twist in this case as I read it, it almost reads in the indictment as if some of the people involved were acting as a fence for stolen goods, that what they were doing was they were the middle people, if you will, to then move the body parts and human tissues along - as opposed to being direct purchasers of them in an effort maybe to cover the tracks of what was going on. They weren't very successful at it, because they documented everything in electronic messages.

Rath: I want to talk more about the medical side, but first, more about this collector's market. Morbid collections and curiosity cabinets have become pretty mainstream lately. We have TV shows like like "Oddities," about people who like these kind of things. Has has this market been been growing and how much of it is illicit?

Troyer: Well, the market is growing. How much of it is illicit is a really interesting question, because the honest answer to that is I don't know and I'm not sure anyone really does. I think that as with, say, for example, in the world of animal taxidermy, there's a whole movement towards what might be described as ethical taxidermy and making sure that things are above-board and you're not working with any kind of endangered species or anything like that. Legit dealers and legit collectors will make sure that what they're working with is usually something from a previous, older collection - something that can clearly be demonstrated with a clear provenance. Whereas I think because of the ability to put items up for sale online at any time, individuals who are less concerned about the ethics of procurement are more than happy to work with biomaterials and human tissues. I say biomaterials, but I mean hands, skin, human organs. It's not honestly about the stealing of the human remains. The human remains are named in the indictment as the stolen goods, but what we're talking about is stealing property, in this case from Harvard, and then the repeated stealing of goods. These cases tend to break up because people just become very greedy and sometimes it's around tax evasion, but oftentimes wire fraud, interstate transport, as was the case in these cases.

Rath: Well, let's break down that greed materially. How much is a dead human body worth?

Troyer: There's two ways to approach this question. One answer would be for an intact, full dead body. I've seen some estimates go from anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. That may not be adjusted for inflation, but that could be one possible amount. It'ss not a market rate you could identify very cleanly. The second answer to the question is, in many cases, a dead human body is worth immensely more, by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands more, if it is what's called disarticulated. So if the dead body is then separated into different parts - and that could be everything from the bones to the internal organs to the teeth to the fingernails - all of that can be sold. At which point then you're looking at maybe north of $100,000 to $200,000. But again, these are all numbers that are speculative.

Rath: What happened with the morgue at Harvard obviously was illegal there. There are charges being brought, but are there ways that we can prevent this kind of thing from happening again?

Troyer: How this is handled in terms of legislation is an ongoing issue, because there've been different proposals brought forth at the national level around body parts trafficking and they've never really gone anywhere in the past. The National Funeral Directors Association have brought forward model legislation and different policies to try and deal with this, because I think that by and large, funeral directors - and I say this as the son of a formal funeral director - are working completely within ethical boundaries, and it only takes one or two individuals to make everything look really terrible. So they've actually taken the lead in trying to develop this. Whether or not it goes through is a different story. That's the perennial issue here, which is legislation and policy is brought forward, everyone agrees it's a good idea, and then it's just never approved. That may be what happens in this case, too.