What’s the Body Worth?

January 14, 2010 at 2:14 pm

While working on a reprint project of the Mayo brothers and other prominent early physicians at Mayo Clinic, we came across an interesting, if not whimsical, interview of Dr. Charles H. Mayo that appeared in the Northwestern Health Journal (Dec. 1924, 9:9-10).  Dr. Charlie had only recently been elected president of the American Medical Association at the time of the interview; and the article was titled, “Our Bodies’ Worth Only 84 Cents – Dr. Mayo.”  After browsing through this light-hearted piece, it begged the question — what is the human body worth today?

The interview format provided an opportunity to “experience” the voice of Dr. Charlie and to enjoy some of his humor.  In those 84 cents he said “there is enough sulfur to keep the fleas off a dog and enough iron for an eight-penny nail.”  His good-natured personality glowed throughout.  One of his “pet” topics was what people eat.  He compared what people eat to the value of the human body.  He stated that the food we consumed on a daily basis was worth much more than our entire body.  Over the decades the question of what is a body worth has recurred.  An authoritative source for the chemical composition of the body dates back to the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, now part of the United States Department of Agriculture.  Theirs was a highly scientific approach to the chemical composition of the human body.

Oxygen  65%
Carbon  18%
Hydrogen  10%
Nitrogen  3%
Calcium  1.5%
Phosphorous   1%
Potassium  0.35%
Sulfur  0.25%
Sodium  0.15%
Chlorine  0.15%
Magnesium  0.05%
Iron   0.0004%
Iodine   0.00004%

Surprisingly the actual values of the chemicals have varied little over time depending on the market value of the elements.  A Google search illustrates much evidence of renewed interest in this medical parlor game.  Contemporary entries go beyond the individual “elements” and focus on “other” global markets; e.g., bone marrow, ($23 million) and DNA ($9.7 million).

The current monetary worth placed of the basic “elements” in an individual human body is $4.50:  $3.50 for the skin and the remainder of the worth assigned in the aggregate to the major elements — $1.00.  Almost 100 years have passed and the difference is only 16 cents from Dr. Charlie’s long ago calculation!  We can’t say that we have increased in value markedly, but at least we aren’t worth any less.  For most of us the value of the human body is priceless; but we do well to remember a quote attributed to Thomas Edison, “From his neck down a man is worth a couple of dollars a day, from his neck up he is worth anything that his brain can produce.”

Dottie Hawthorne
Outreach Librarian, Mayo Clinic Libraries

Entry filed under: Feature Articles.

*Working in the Rochester Methodist Hospital Patients’ Library PubMed Interface Reloaded

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