If I could choose to take one class again from back in medical school, it would be an easy choice. I'd do gross anatomy again, the cadaver lab. It was in many ways the most interesting of the courses, learning about the details of the complex cosmos of innards that each one of us carries about. It was a social learning process; my cadaver partners and I were all new to medical school, and we were helping each other in taking apart our specimen, and exposing structures we had never before seen. It was certainly a rite of passage, an initiation that only upcoming doctors got, gaining arcane knowledge that few others needed (or wanted, for that matter). To that end, my gross anatomy lab, with around eighteen tables in it, each containing a tank of formaldehyde into which the cadaver could be lowered at the end of the day's cutting, was a restricted area. No one except us medical students, and our instructors, were supposed to be in there. I did, one time, sneak my wife in, so that she could see where I was spending all that time. There was also a strict rule: there were never to be any cameras in the lab. As far as I know, there never were. Yet this was not always the case, as demonstrated by a strange, morbidly entertaining, and enlightening volume _Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880 - 1930_ (Blast Books) by John Harley Warner and James M. Edmonson. Both authors are medical historians, and Edmonson is curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum of Case Western Reserve University from which most of these photographs come. The pictures are not anatomical studies, but document students at work (and play) as well as giving visual demonstration of social attitudes within medical education at the time.
There are over a hundred photographs here, laid out in a glossy and handsome volume. Usually the photos were taken by the students themselves, or their professors. The pictures here show students not in candid activity, but posed and ready to be recorded. In groups, one student might have a big volume open, obviously reading about the current exploration, and perhaps reading aloud to the fellows around the table. The cadavers were stolen from graveyards or confiscated by the state because their "class, ethnicity, race, or poverty made them vulnerable to dissection." Their status is indicated in the photographs in different ways. In only some of the photographs of dissected bodies is it possible to tell the race of the person on the table. In one of them, a slogan has been written on the table that indicates by offensive language that all of the cadaver's racial group "smell alike to us". Other tables have been chalked to indicate the sentiment, "He lived for others but died for us," a phrase that seems to have been a standard for these young anatomists. Many of the photos display a disrespect for the cadaver (and Warner makes a correct analogy to lynching photos of the time) that is easily interpreted as racially motivated. Also, however, the photos display the sort of dark humor used by students who were not completely comfortable with what they were doing. A grinning skull atop a skeleton might be equipped with a pipe, or posed with a card-playing skeleton buddy. The most bizarre photos here are classic displays of humor trying to overcome anxiety. It seems that many students found relief and amusement by posing the partially dissected cadavers standing around a live student lying on the table: "A student's dream."
The photos here are strange souvenirs from a distant time. Dissection was even more important in their day than now, although experimental physiology and chemistry were making inroads into the beginning curriculum. Nowadays, not all medical schools have gross anatomy labs, with students learning from pre-dissected specimens or from computer-modeled cadavers. Within the traditional labs, the biggest change is the source of the cadavers. The disassembled bodies in the bizarre, funny, and grotesque pictures in this book belonged to people who never wanted to be there; cadavers now more often come from those who have specifically made the contribution of their own bodies so that future doctors can learn from them. There are rules now that the bodies must be treated with the respect due to the generous donors, but such rules must be superfluous to any medical student who understands the nature of the donation. However, some rules change and still remain the same: Edmonson writes that now, "Photography is expressly forbidden, and rules today often ban cell phones with cameras."