This viral cadaver lab is educating the masses on their own bodies

Using real human cadavers, the Salt Lake City-based Institute of Human Anatomy (IOHA) teaches its over 15 million followers and subscribers from YouTube and TikTok about the body. Collectively, the institute’s content has garnered over 600 million views.

Despite all the success they’ve found, founding the IOHA wasn’t anyone’s original plan. 

Jonathan Bennion, one of IOHA’s co-founders and the host of many of their videos, was a pre-med student at the University of Utah when he took a job teaching anatomy at the Utah College of Massage Therapy.

“I’d teach lectures down there and then take them up to the cadaver lab [on campus],” Bennion says. “When the relationship between the University of Utah and the college [was] terminated, the students were in a borderline uprising. Not many massage schools in the country get [lab experience].”

Bennion says he fielded messages from students for a year, all of whom were looking for a cadaver lab opportunity.

“Then one day at home, I was like, ‘Maybe I should start my own cadaver lab,’ because that’s a normal idea to have,” Bennion laughs. “The first person that popped into my mind was my brother-in-law, Jeremy [Jones]. He’s an entrepreneur and has managed a lot of businesses, and I had no idea how to start.”

Bennion decided to give Jones a call. 

“When he said he wanted to start a cadaver lab, man, my entire thought process just shifted gears,” Bennion says. “I never thought that was going to come out of his mouth. But the concept alone was fascinating on so many different levels that it was immediately of interest to me.”

Jones, taking on the titles of co-founder and executive director, started making phone calls of his own from lab spaces across the valley to obtain licenses from city and state departments.

“Nobody knew what to tell me,” Jones says. “Nobody had any idea how a private business would do this because, at that point, there did not exist a private human cadaver lab in the state. They were all affiliated with a university.”

Eventually, IOHA found a home at a high school—Granite Technical Institute (GTI) in South Salt Lake.

From 2013 to 2019, Bennion taught anatomy classes at the lab for smaller colleges that didn’t have those resources. As part of their deal with GTI, they also invited high school students to the lab.

“We were kind of a match made in heaven,” Bennion says. “It’s fun to teach students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to learn about anatomical awesomeness.”

The cadavers the lab started with—and still use today—come from a donor program partnership. “We lease bodies and serve as their custodians for a period of time,” Jones says. “We still use my truck that I use to go camping [to pick up cadavers].”

It was all new territory for Bennion and Jones, and eventually, they saw a need to bring on more staff. Bennion had met Justin Cottle while teaching at Utah College of Massage Therapy and brought him onto the team to help teach courses. For both men, while they were making money from the courses and paying little overhead to the school, IOHA was still part-time work—until TikTok.

“I started looking for side hustles and got into digital marketing,” Cottle says. “I didn’t have any experience with social media; it was something I knew could make money…so I was like, let’s just figure this out.”

Cottle funneled his free time into the up-and-coming platform.

“At the time, the app was nothing but prank videos and dancing,” Cottle says. “We were one of the very first educators to use the platform, and it was slow going. We thought this might be a good opportunity to try and jump into an app that was less established. I had a good feeling about it, but it was also just a shot in the dark.”

Their biggest challenge, Bennion says, was content. “We’d always been bouncing around the idea of going online,” he continues. “But we wondered how to navigate it and how to stay true to our cause to respect body donations.”

The team found success when Cottle decided to cut out the middleman.

“I reached out to ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok because we have a lot of respect for the cadavers,” he says.

Cottle put together an IOHA sample video and sent it off for review. Within an hour, a representative from the company reached out and committed to helping them find a place on the app. 

“We got approval from TikTok itself and their creative team before we put content out there,” Cottle says. “Again, we didn’t want people to be scrolling by dance video, dance video, dance video, human heart, dance video—we wanted to get it right.”

Cottle posted their first TikTok in November 2019, right before sitting down to dinner. When he logged back on that night, IOHA’s only video had 500,000 views. The next morning, it was in the millions.

Since then, IOHA’s view count (and following) has only grown. Cottle has remained in contact with the ByteDance team, going back and forth on different types of short-form video he could post while remaining within the content guidelines and holding respect for donors and their loved ones.

As the IOHA team has expanded to new platforms, they’ve managed to dodge content restrictions—for the most part.

“There have been frustrations,” Bennion qualifies. “TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and now Snapchat all have different lines for what they deem appropriate. Justin and I will have moments where we’re like, ‘Why is that video monetized when they’re dropping F-bombs left and right?’ Then we’re showing a human heart in a lesson about a heart attack and we’re [de-monetized].” 

It’s not just algorithms flagging their content. Bennion says that comment sections can be bogged down by people questioning the morality of their posts.

"We have one body that has literally educated millions and millions—we’re talking like 30 million-plus people. That’s incredible.”

“We have people say, ‘Wow, that’s somebody’s mom,’ critiquing our use of real cadavers in videos, suggesting that what we’re doing is wrong,” he says.

At first, IOHA’s team would respond directly in the comments explaining their approach to education and how cadavers are used—”No identifying features are ever shown,” and so on. As their audience grew, however, they found that their comment sections became self-regulated.

“Our own audience comes in and answers those questions now,” he says. “You can see people go in and explain how beneficial this is and the value we’re giving back. We have one body that has literally educated millions and millions—we’re talking like 30 million-plus people. That’s incredible.”

Those conversations aren’t small potatoes for IOHA. Jones says most of their earnings (and profit) come from behind the screen.

IOHA has multiple income streams: renting the lab out to educational organizations and companies; in-person lab revenue from teaching their own courses; and what Jones calls “social media”—AdSense, brand deals and endorsements and creator funds.

In 2019, in-person revenue accounted for 100 percent of IOHA income. At the end of 2022, in-person revenue was 2.3 percent of their income.

“The way things are going, I think that’s going to be down to under 1 percent at the end of 2023,” Jones says.

That steady stream of internet income isn’t as easy to come by as you might think, Bennion cautions.

“People look at social media giants and think they’re lucky,” he says. “But they work like crazy—it is hard work! You’re always dropping videos. Justin dropped one the other day, and as soon as it’s posted, he’s gotta get ready for the next one. There’s a little bit of the grind there.” 

That’s also when IOHA’s complete transition from medical laboratory to content production company will likely be realized.

“We value people coming in, but having more people physically occupy our lab means that Jonathan and Justin can’t be filming and creating content,” Jones adds.

The team plans to expand into more courses and accreditations, all of which will be available online.

“When we first started this lab, there were absolutely restrictions around who could access it and who could come and take courses,” Bennion says. “We can do courses where everything is behind a firewall, so you have to be a qualified applicant and deploy those [same restrictions] through the digital format.” 

While it’s a bit farther from the point Bennion started at, the priority shift toward virtual-friendly content is one guided by the desire to reach more people—and padded by economics.

“We started this entire thing to teach people,” Jones says. “We’ve got people globally watching our content. I have moms saying, ‘My five-year-old son is absolutely fascinated with your channel and he wants to be a doctor now,’ all the way up to 70-year-olds asking questions about their own health. The [income] makes it comfortable, but the results and the people we are touching make it absolutely fulfilling.”

Still, Bennion says social media fame and the pressures to move all their resources to the virtual world will never fully replace the lab’s in-person components.

“We’ve had moments where we go back to our in-person class after filming for hours, and it’s the most fun thing ever to see these students with their eyes are popping out of their heads because they’re so excited,” he says. “Those in-person classes can be grounding, humbling reminders of why we did this. There are multiple reasons to keep them, and I think it keeps us true to who we were originally.”

Regardless of the format, the goal always has been and always will be about education for IOHA.

“We’re a little bit cheesy, but we say that the lab is way more about life than it is about death,” Bennion says. “I truly believe that because people will come in there and learn from these amazing anatomical gifts and then go out and help the living.” 

Jacqueline is a Master of Accounting graduate from the University of Utah. Specializing in tax, she's interested in business, government, and the intersection of the two. When she's not studying or writing, she loves to run, play Candy Crush, and read novels.