The first year of medical school traditionally started with Gross Anatomy, which consisted of a semester during which a team of four medical students were assigned to a cadaver, and tasked with learning its anatomy through a process of guided dissection. (This has changed substantially in many schools, with the dissection already performed for the students, while some schools have developed an organ system approach by, for example, studying the anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology of the heart as one module.) During my time at Tulane, we had to perform our own dissection.
Seeing a dead human being up close was a new experience for most of us; one filled with a mixture of trepidation, fascination, awe, mild repulsion, and existential challenge. We were all instructed that the body in front of us was once a person just like us, who had a family, and who deserved our respect. Some had willed their bodies to science and for our educational benefit, while others represented those who died without families to claim them. Their bodies at that time in history could be used for this purpose.
Cadavers were kept in stainless steel rectangular receptacles on a table that could be raised or lowered back into the box, and covered up. Formaldehyde was the universal preservative used to keep the bodies from decomposing, as well as serving as a powerful disinfectant. Its overpowering smell would soon permeate the clothes we wore to the lab, as well as even our hair. No amount of washing ever completely got rid of its particular odor, so all of us threw away the garments we wore to lab once the course was over. Freshman medical students were readily recognizable at a distance by the pungent smell we exuded. No one wanted to ride in the elevator with us during this time in our studies.
Doing proper dissection required a great deal of time, as we had to be careful not to destroy any tissue without properly identifying the necessary components of organs, nerves, blood vessels, as well as the relationship they bore to all the surrounding structures. This was invaluable training for those who would eventually become surgeons or radiologists, especially as we saw, looking at different bodies, that there can be important and sometimes subtle variations in the way our bodies are put together. Some of us are gifted with an intuitive understanding of spatial geometry, but most of us had to rely on brute memory to recall the proper location of an anatomic part and its relationships to its surroundings.
Initially, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of memorization required. My particular situation was made worse by my lab partner going AWOL after the first two weeks of class, leaving me chronically behind in dissection, which was a shared assignment. He was a good looking blond athlete from Holland, Michigan, with a doctor father. Pushed into going to medical school by his family, he just disappeared one day, and I never saw him again. It would be an understatement to say I was stressed out. I would likely have flunked out were it not for the kindness of one of my professors. He was a young Scotsman from Edinburgh, only a few years older than me, fond of smoking a pipe ( a good way to deal with the formaldehyde odor) and telling dirty limericks, as we stayed up until midnight catching up on my assignments. I thought at the time I would always maintain contact with him, but alas, like most students, my attention was easily drawn in other directions, and I allowed our friendship to wither with time. I regret not staying in touch as I promised, as he really went way above the call of duty to help me. As karma would have it, I would suffer the same fate from most of my students once I became a teacher.
Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Life Magazine had a feature called “Life Goes to a Party”. One of these Life articles featured the annual soiree thrown by the freshman medical class at Tulane at the completion of the Gross Anatomy course, appropriately titled “The Cadaver Ball.” Many local hotels refused to let us return following the raucous activities of prior year classes. We eventually secured a venue, but not without a hefty damage deposit. Finishing the challenges of the course was not unlike a military unit in the war that developed inseparable bonds, brought together by common suffering. The Beatles had just come out with their hit, “Hey, Jude” which played often in the lab while we worked, and it became our class song. The party was a smash hit, and no one was left dead afterward. I’ll leave your imaginations to visualize the questionable humor of gross anatomy decorations. If any of you are really interested, go to the library and find the Life Magazine article on the Cadaver Ball. The details and photos are all there. Thankfully, some faces are barely recognizable.