I never feel more alive than when I am standing among the rows and rows of anatomical specimens at St Bartholomew’s Pathology Museum in London, United Kingdom. In one jar floats the remains of an ulcerated stomach; in another, the hands of a suicide victim. Cabinets are filled with syphilitic skulls, arthritic joints, and cancerous bones. The unborn sit alongside the aged; murderers occupy the same space as the murdered.
As a medical historian, I have a professional interest in the collection as part of a project on late seventeenth-century surgery. Occasionally, however, I catch a glimpse of veins and arteries dangling from a severed wrist — or the bloated face of a child who died long ago — and I reflect on the actual surgeons and anatomists who cut up these dead bodies. How did they overcome the emotional and physical realities of dissection? And how do contemporary experiences in the dissection room compare with those from the past?
A few months ago, I sat down with my mother, a registered nurse, and we talked about her first dissection. She spoke with intense clarity as if it had happened only yesterday: “She was a woman in her thirties, younger than I was then, who had died from toxic shock syndrome. I felt sorry for her.” My mother paused as the memories flooded over her. “I wanted to cover her body with a blanket, not because she was naked . At the end of the year, I threw away the only set of clothes I wore under my dissection coat because no amount of washing could get rid of it.”
The sensory experiences of those working in the earlier periods would have differed greatly from those of Thomas Waite. To better understand what medical students in earlier periods might have felt when first confronted with the rotting flesh of unpreserved corpses, I turned to William MacLehose, a medical historian at University College London. Several years ago, he visited the “Body Farm”, the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee, the United States of America, where human decomposition is studied. When I asked William MacLehose to describe his reaction to what he saw on the Body Farm, he struggles to find words, pointing out that “words will always have some level of distance to them” that cannot fully capture the “raw and horrific” experience he had when he first visited the research facility. He confesses that the “safe, stale, academic references” he had in his mind before his visit were no preparation for the reality he faced: “I remember wishing I had not gone”, he admits. The realities that awaited the young surgical student during the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-centuries were grim. These were not the bloodless bodies of today — with their preserved limbs and starched linens. Indeed, Jennifer Kasten tells me that she found the “lack of particular smells” in the dissection room to be “surprising”. Even when slicing open the colon and “squeezing out the long toothpaste-like stream of faeces”, she was not met with the familiar “human smells” one might expect.
Today, cadavers are cloaked in anonymity. Yet, I was surprised by the frequency with which questions about a specimen’s former humanity came up during my interviews. Erica Lilly remembers the first time she looked upon the feet of a cadaver. She wondered if those feet “had walked on the beach”; if those “toes had ever had sand between them?” Similarly, Thomas Waite often thinks back to an elderly man he dissected during anatomy lessons. Aside from some atherosclerosis, the man belied his age.
Thomas Waite remembers being struck that one can achieve great age with so little evidence of disease after death. Twelve years later, he still had questions: had this man “walked with a frame or unaided?” Did he “maintain his independence or was he mentally more frail in life than his physical organs appeared in death?” I believe these questions speak less about the dead than they do the living. Focusing on the humanity of the corpse sometimes serves as a distraction from one’s own sense of inhumanity as a dissector. It is a small comfort to those faced with the task of cutting open a dead body. “We worried there was something defective about us”, Jennifer Kasten reflects, “that we were so easily able to go about cutting up a person into his constituent parts in a methodical, emotionless way”. After all, she admits, “our new normal really was very abnormal”.
Also published on Medium.