No Sixth Sense but I Do See Dead People

Courtesy of science I have been put in many an awkward situation and probably lost potential friends through a dialogue which seems to happen all too often. It goes as follows:

Dissection
Dissection (Wiki Commons)

“What did you do today?”

“I had dissection, it was really fun.”

“Cool, what animal, rats? I dissected a rat in school once.”

“Umm no, human.”

“What? A real human?”

“Well they are dead, but even so very real.”

“Right. Well nice meeting you then, bye bye.”

The dialogue often leaves people in disbelief. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that dissection is one of the more educationally beneficial aspects of my entire course.

Human dissection in the modern era has a history spanning just a few hundred years. It has a notorious past with many ethical questions raised over the origin of the bodies. Going back many years, it was not uncommon for criminals to be non-voluntarily donated to medical schools or grave robbers to surreptitiously get hold of bodies that had just been buried.

Today, however, the program is quite different. The University of Melbourne runs the ‘Body Donor Program’ which distributes bodies to all institutions which require them throughout Victoria.

In addition anyone working on the cadavers (dead bodies) must abide by the Human Tissues Act, providing utmost respect to the person’s remains, which are cremated once the dissection is complete.

Second year anatomy students at Melbourne are lucky enough to have the opportunity to examine previously dissected material. Third year students then have the opportunity to work in groups on a complete cadaver (whose details other than cause of death and age at death are kept anonymous) once a week for the entire academic year.

While initially confronting, dissection soon becomes a weekly routine. It is a vital educational resource which far supersedes any textbook.

Dealing with real human material allows recognition of the amazing complexity of a human body as well as anatomical anomalies which occur quite frequently, but aren’t often mentioned in text books.

While having your arms elbow deep in a dead person’s abdomen may not be everybody’s idea of fun, it is no doubt one of the greatest scientific tools that the University has.

The generous donation by the deceased allows better understanding of anatomy, pathology and many other life sciences paving the way for scientific advancement.

While I may have to choose a more neutral answer when discussing my day, I hope programs like the ‘Body Donor Program’ will continue for hundreds of more years allowing scientists worldwide to gain a more thorough understanding of the complexities of the human body.

(For those interested in what an embalmed body looks like after dissection click here.)


3 Responses to “No Sixth Sense but I Do See Dead People”

  1. feenex says:

    Great post! As for the body donor program, I agree that programs like that should continue on. I find it interesting that in some countries everyone is on the donor list unless you sign out rather than in Australia where you have to sign in (filling out a donor card). I think this should be implemented in all countries.

  2. Steph Ludekens says:

    Great blog Adam!

    My best friend did an Anatomy and Physiology major last year and so I’ve heard all about it! Maybe it’s because I’ve already had a chance to understand why people like dissections, but I feel that you’ve hit the nail on the head when it comes to explaining why they’re so useful.

    I did a History and Philosophy of Science subject last semester which was all about the Scientific Revolution and we learnt about how anatomy used to be studied. They used to have the lecturer dissect an animal in front of a class and they would guess at what all the parts did, then they would draw a picture and transpose the animal’s body parts onto a human form. All Anatomy students learnt about the human body directly from a text book of these pictures. It wasn’t until human dissections that medicine as we know it today began to exist!

    I think that this applies to all science – experiments and seeing things in real life make it so much easier to understand all the theory that we need to learn! Demonstration is also a really effective method of science communication with people outside the scientific community!

  3. Tina says:

    Adam,
    I know how you feel. I for one also do dissections and have a tendency to bring it up during dinner time.
    Also, when I recently came back from Madagascar I had a parasitic bug in my foot. I thought it was pretty neat, considering it had managed to release an anaesthetic that numbed my foot so I couldn’t feel it, but my friends did not agree. Not the best conversation started when on a date either. Ha.
    But all in all. I know how you feel. The price of studying and loving science!