The Anatomy Dissection Room

July 3, 2012

In our first year at Medical School we only studied three basic subjects; Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry. We would sit in lectures – I think there were about 120 of us in a year – taking notes, we’d have tutorials in small groups,  have practicals in the labs, and  weekly biochemistry tests. I found physiology easy – how the body works is fairly interesting and lots of it I’d covered in Biology already. Biochemistry on the other hand was shite. I’d not even got chemistry O level so understanding chemical reactions and molecular structure  was a bit out of my league. But I muddled through (just).

Of the three basic subjects, anatomy was the one virtually unique to medicine. To be allowed the privilege of dissecting a human being who had left their body so generously to science to help us understand the three dimensional nature of our wonderful machine.

We were not taken to the Anatomy Dissection room in the first week. We were built up to it, to ensure we understood the gravity and the respect we must show. It was also true that most folk are very wary of walking in to a room full of dead bodies. Most people have not seen one dead body let alone a roomful.

And so it was we had to turn up with our white coats and dissection kits – all mine had was a scalpel, forceps and a pair of scissors. Others had been bought more deluxe versions with other instruments in which never got used. we were also advised to buy a skeleton from a second year. Mine came in a lovely wooden box

Just irresistible. Have to play with a skull


We were taken to the basement towards the Dissection room. There were double doors in to a vestibule area, and more double doors in to the dissection room itself. As soon as you got near the dissection room the smell was apparent. It is the most distinctive smell. Inescapable. Unforgettable.  Formaldehyde. And if ever I get a whiff of it anywhere else it immediately transports me back to that room.  I was nervous in the vestibule. Not sure how I would react. I had seen my grand mother immediately before and after she died, but that was a very different prospect to that which faced me now.  We were told if any of us felt ill, or that we were going to faint to simply get yourself out of there and come back when you are ready. I didn’t feel like I would faint, I was just nervous.

The double doors were opened and we stepped in to a cavernous room with bodies laid out in rows.  A  few couldn’t hack it and left the room straight away. Others felt ill a bit later and disappeared too. But most of us kept our nerve.

There were probably about 25 bodies in the room, and about 5 of us were assigned to an individual body that would be ‘ours’ for the next twelve months as we slowly dissected every part of them.

The initial view was not as shocking as it sounds, as for our initiation, our medical school had made sure the bodies were covered apart from the area where we were going to start dissecting. This maintained some dignity and modesty for the bodies, albeit they were unaware, and critically this meant the hands, feet and face were covered. These are particularly human features that are most likely to be upsetting to brand new students, not yet able to detach themsleves from the fact that this is a dead person.

They had also done the first incision for us, in to the chest, as cutting through skin for the first time is incredibly emotional.

So our practical dissection started by peeling back the chest wall skin to reveal the fat then muscles and ribs beneath. Fat looked like scrambled egg. I hadn’t expected that.  And human muscles look just like any other red  meat. I was glad I was a vegetarian. Although  I did have a recurring nightmare of bending down and eating the meat off our body. I can still visualise it now.

In the dissection room is the lecturer –  often a Professor –  and various surgical trainees. They are qualified doctors now having opted to become surgeons and obviously they need an incredible knowledge of anatomy so come back to medical school for a few months and work in the dissection room whilst they study anatomy in far greater depth than us. They help us work out what is what and how to dissect without simply cutting through everything you are trying to find. We only dissect the area that the Professor sets for us, and the sessions are all morning.

Qccasionally throughout the year we get live anatomical models to help us understand the workings and attachments of the various muscles. These were very well defined lads in nothing but tiny trunks. They would tense and relax various muscle groups on demand and allow themselves to be drawn  (and fawned) over as we worked out what attached where.

Plus there are the Mortuary Assistants. A separate breed entirely. They are the ones who do all the cleaning and preparing of the bodies -so that we can dissect without blood clots everywhere and the organs are preserved for us to study. They do this by  injecting formaldehyde . Which has the distinctive smell. They also control the saws and drills that are needed to cut through various parts.

And the first day we need them to open the sternum (breastbone) for us so we can get right inside the chest and take out the heart and lungs.  Our guy appears to have been a smoker and have had lung cancer.  They love being so at ease with the bodies and knowing a shedload more about them than we do. At this point we know virtually nothing, but have given our body a name. We called him Elvis.

After we leave the dissection room the Mortuary assistants clean up after us, finish off what we haven’t managed to complete and set the bodies for the next session. It does not take much time for us to be used to this scene, and be relaxed chatting around the body, peering in, poking and cutting. Learning, learning learning. Getting involved in minutiae.  Sometimes people get too relaxed, forgetting where they were, laughing or dropping ash from their cigarette on the bandaged head,  and we have to be reminded to give these bodies the unreserved respect they deserve. And we do.

We look at other people’s dissections if there is a particularly good example of something, or when we need to do female reproductive organs we have to swap with a table that needs to see male ones. But basically we work our way through Elvis over weeks and months. When his hands were unwrapped, it was a stark reminder that this had been a vibrant human being. Hands that would have reached out and held another’s.

The final dissection was the head. The mortuary technicians helped us remove the bandages and there he was. His face now uncovered. A man. But not just any man. Incredibly it was someone we recognised. Not Elvis admittedly, but a film and TV star who had died the year previously.

It was rather odd peeling off the face of a person you kind of felt you knew.

So here was someone who had entertained in his lifetime and was now educating from beyond the grave. What gifts he gave to humanity.


4 Responses to “The Anatomy Dissection Room”

  1. TofuMedic Says:

    Wow, really surprised to hear that you could even smoke in the dissection room let alone drop cigarette ash onto the cadaver!

    • Indeed – but we are talking a loooong time ago! And in fact I don’t think we were supposed to smoke in there, but one of the anatomy demonstrators used to occasionally, so sometimes it would happen. Thanks for reading. And good luck with your studies!

  2. Martin Sanders Says:

    Never seen a dead body and in no particular rush either. Last time i properly sliced my hand open and the flesh all opened up i fainted much to my (dietitian) wifes disgust. Interesting blog but I don’t think i could hack it (no pun intended).

    • Slicing yourself is slightly different from dissecting a cadaver! The blood for a start. And it is surprising how you can start seeing a cadaver simply in terms of muscles, tendons, bones etc rather than think of it as human.

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