Anatomy and Dissecting Dead Bodies
The Anatomy Museum at Medical College Calcutta
Rabindranath Tagore had a tutor, Aghorenath Chattopadhyaya, who used to teach him English and several other subjects at home. This young man was a student of Medical College. Unfortunately he was apparently not a great teacher, and unlike many such teachers, was conscious of his failings. He used to desperately try to ingratiate himself to his students (who also included one of Tagore’s nephews and a brother). On one occasion he brought a dissected larynx from the Medical College in order to kindle their interest in lessons. As a treat, he also took them to the Anatomy Dissection Hall at the Medical College to see the rows of bodies lying there for dissection. Tagore, it is recorded, was not impressed. He looked upon the body of an old woman with equanimity, but the sight of a cut leg lying on the floor made him queasy.
I do not know when the present Dissection Hall at the Calcutta Medical College was built, perhaps it did not exist then, but the Dissection Hall was really a wonderful sight in my student days. There was a huge hall and a gallery above it all with rows of dissection tables and bodies in various stages of dissection. When a new term started, the doms, the attendants there, used to lay them out in rows and the bodies were now ready for the students of the two pre clinical years to get down to the serious business of dissection. One of them, Bilas Dom, whose bandy legged gait generations of students remember, has been immortalized in the unofficial Medical College anthem which we sing on many occasions, and is probably being sung there today as the reunion starts.
The hall had an adjacent museum which contained some rare specimens of congenital anomalies as well as some lovely dissections done by generations of Demonstrators and students, showing the anatomy as clearly as any picture in a textbook. The Anatomy Lecture theater was also in the same block, tiers of well polished wooden galleries rising up from the floor, the seats numbered: we were supposed to sit at in front of our numbers, to enable the teacher, or the Prosector to easily take attendance.
Dissections were divided into Parts. The first years used to do the lower limb and the thorax while the seniors in second year dissected the upper limb, abdomen and head and neck. The breast was part of the upper limb and so reserved for the seniors, worse luck! Each of these “parts” were again divided into items, for instance the dissection of the sole of the foot was the first item in the lower limb dissection. Who knew before we entered Medical College that the sole of the foot has four layers and we were supposed to remember the contents of all of them? I am sure many of us would have cheerfully exchanged our coveted medical college seats for a B Sc if we had known earlier! After each part we were supposed to give an oral examination the so called item test and our marks were recorded in a sort of report card. After you had dissected all the items, moving gradually up from the sole via the front and back of the leg to the thigh and finally the femoral triangle (much beloved of anatomists) you had to appear for a Part completion, when the entire part was open for questioning. If you successfully completed this you went to the next part.
The items were easy. The examiners were usually the demonstrators who were junior teachers, easily accessible and friendly, often preparing for post graduate examinations in the clinical sciences, brushing up their anatomy by teaching. But the Part completions were taken by the professors, those intrepid men and rarely women, who had made anatomy their life’s calling. They were much stricter and to tell the truth because we hardly ever saw them except in the safe distance of the lecture classes they evoked a fear that even the bravest students were prey to.( reading the last sentence I realize that incidentally this is the sort of English , up with which Churchill would not put, but who cares!!!)
The last three hours of each working day was given to the Anatomy Dissection. Groups were assigned to each body and we dissected the part poring over Cunningham’s manual which had guided thousands of students for decades in Indian and in England and all its colonial possessions. Initially there was fierce competition to be the dissector, but the early enthusiasm quickly evaporated and finally each group had only one or two dedicated students who actually liked to cut up dead bodies. Most of them later became surgeons, not unexpectedly!
Those were the days when anatomy was a two year course, and shared in the first year with Biochemistry and Physiology and the second year only with Physiology. Today the students do 6 subjects in the first 18 months and the anatomy teaching is a joke. Perhaps in our time there was overkill, but today we seem to have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Gray’s Anatomy (not the soap opera, but a huge tome, about 2.5 kg in weight) was our bible. We used to pride ourselves in knowing the origin and insertion of most of the major muscle and many minor ones and the intricate pattern of nerves, veins and arteries were endlessly fascinating. We were lucky also in having some wonderful teachers of whom I plan to write in late posts, but even without them, because we had the time to delve deeply into the intricacies of anatomy, we developed a love for it, which some called perverse.
There used to be a medal awarded for the best dissection. It was a prize examination, which meant that you had to take a special exam. My love of anatomy never extended to that sort of unhealthy levels as to take a separate non compulsory examination, so I sat out, but many did. I can’t quite recall who the Pan Medalist was in our year now. It was a prestigious award as was the prosectorship which was awarded at the end of the first year. You got your name immortalized in marble in the Anatomy Lecture theatre as one of the rewards. ( other rewards included having to take the attendance before the classes and having to answer all the questions that lesser mortals failed to. )
Much of our knowledge was useless to our future medical career, and the students who learn Anatomy as one of six subjects in less time than we gave to only three subjects seem to do ok, but I do not think that any of them develop any fascination for the intricate network that makes up the human body that we did. In any case gross anatomy is unfashionable now, anatomist nowadays work at cellular levels.
I would like this to be a tribute to all those people whose bodies we used to learn anatomy. We , I am sorry to say, did not always treat the bodies with respect, we did not realize then, thoughtless we were, how much we owed to the persons who made their bodies available to us to educate us. May their souls rest in peace!