The teaching of anatomy was taken very seriously in our student days. The first two years were devoted to its study, a daily lecture being supplemented by a three hour dissection stint during the afternoons and many classes on osteology, viscera and surface marking.
Many of us used to enjoy the grind; the knowledge of the origins, insertions and nerve supplies of every muscle and the names of the structures passing through every single obscure hole in the base of the skull used to be exciting to be able to remember. Much of the time was wasted, I now realise, as we used a large amount of time and energy learning by rote many things that were useless in the real world of medicine. However it is undeniable that it also gave us a grounding in learning facts that stood us in good stead ever since. And I do remember, to this day, large amounts of anatomy, 30 years after my anatomy examination; how useful this is something that can be debated.
But I want to speak today of two teachers of Anatomy who became legends in their lifetimes in the world of medical students of Calcutta in the late seventies.
One of them was, of course, Dr Samar Mitra. Dr Mitra was pretty senior even when we were students. I think it was during our time in Medical College that he became eligible for retirement and was appointed as an Emeritus Professor. He was then, by far the most popular teacher in the campus. This was because of his foolproof method of teaching anatomy to dummies. Dr Mitra had perfected a very clever teaching method that made it possible for even the most absent minded student remember the basics of the subject. He also made it showed us how it was possible to draw intricate diagrams layer by layer so that we could show the exact relations of nerves and muscles and bones that were essential for an understanding of the human body.
I still remember his lectures in embryology , another subject that terrorized us in those days in a way that Osama bin Laden can never do. He had some stock phrases which used to be very catchy and easy to remember. I still remember him dramatically describing menstruation as the “monthly crying of the uterus for one drop of spermatozoa”, a description, which, if not very poetic, was pure theatre. I also remember that he used to start his first lecture on embryology by telling us to imagine that we were the part of the embryo that was being taught presently, to forget our own names and to nominate ourselves as the embryo. The first class ended with the description of the morula and as he was about to exit the lecture hall he suddenly turned around and asked one of the girls ( was it Manjulika?) what her name was. As she replied with her own name, he mock scolded her: “No your name is Morula!” Later we found that this was his invariable practice year after year and the student concerned never failed to fall for it.
Dr Mitra it was, who used to sardonically point out that students never failed to bring their “bones” to college in the first year, allowing the ends of the femur to hang strategically out of their bags to impress the fellow passengers in the bus about their status as medical students. However the novelty, he said, faded by the second year when the bones were really needed and all the demonstrators' remonstrations could not make them bring them to class now. Similar was the case of the third year students who loved to twirl their stethoscopes in public to show that they were now let loose on patients, but in the fifth year, the stethoscopes were invariably missing from their possession!
He was a very active participant in the Reunion Drama. For decades, he acted in them, to roars of appreciation from his students, both present and those safely away from his iron hand. Generations of students remember him with gratitude and fondness.
A second teacher, whom I remember with much fondness and respect, is Dr Asim Kumar Dutta. He was then the Professor of Anatomy at the University College of Medicine and his teaching style was as different from Dr Mitra’s as chalk from cheese. Dr Dutta’s son, Kaustav, was my schoolmate from class 2 to the end of our days in school and while I knew that his father was a medical teacher, I never really realized his stature until I became a medical student myself.
I used to attend his coaching classes at his house in Broad Street three mornings a week. Here he taught students for what now seems a very small honorarium and I think it was he who instilled in me a love for the subject and opened my eyes to the layered structure of the human body. He spoke without notes, effortlessly building up layer by layer, from the posterior wall of the human body, the intricate structures that make up a human being. His drawing was mind blowing and I remember that he used to give us the references of the statements that he made. I can still hear as if it were yesterday him saying “these are not my words, they are the words of Gray Gardener and O Rahilly” the authors of text book that he was very fond of quoting.
My relationship with Dr Dutta has been long lived. After retirement he went to join the Medical College in Bharatpur in Nepal,where he built up the Anatomy department and taught generations of Nepali students the same principles of anatomy that we had imbibed from him. I used to meet him regularly when I went there as an examiner during my stint in Nepal and he wanted my wife and myself to join “his” college. However we had to decline this request as we could not dream of leaving our beloved Pokhara.. He was treated there with the same respect and love that he was in our student days in Calcutta and I am told that he is still there, evoking the magic of anatomy to the students of today.
Both of them had books of anatomy. Dr Mitra’s book was a made easy: it made it easy to pass the exams, Dr Dutta’s was more cerebral, and both were immensely popular, maybe they still are for all I know.
There were many other such legendary teachers. Dr. K K Bannerjee at the R G Kar Medical College was one of them There were others , but I must mention one more teacher who had left the College long before we got there and in fact died in the Medical College Hospital during my student days. I refer , of course, to Dr Pasupati Bose.
Dr Pasupati Bose was talked about by all the ex students and is still talked about; he was reported to be the greatest anatomy teacher ever. I am told that he could draw simultaneously with both hands on the board, something that I thought only Leonardo da Vinci could do! He left behind a reputation that awed us even in our day and whenever we talked about our teachers, some senior was sure to say, “Huh! They are nothing like Dr Pasupati Bose”.
The tradition continues, I am glad to say; I am informed that several teachers today also have such legendary status. May this tradition continue, so that we can argue during the reunion tea party about, who it was who was the greatest of them all.