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:
“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.)