Gross Anatomy at Harvard Medical School:

Their Bodies, Ourselves

David E. Munoz remembers her hands. "Her nails were all done," he says of the woman with whom he has worked very closely during the past eight weeks.

Sherleen H. Huang worked with a man. She says she remembers seeing his tattoo. And he had freckles, she adds, smiling.

She got to know him well. "He was like a friend," she explains, though his chest hair still bothered her. "It was too human."

Of course, Huang's and Munoz's friends are human. They're also dead.

There's no way to get around the "Gross Anatomy" lab, part of "The Human Body" course taught at Harvard Medical School. Doctors need to know human anatomy. And to know human anatomy, aspiring physicians must study cadavers.


But whether medical students look forward to viewing the intricate digestive system or whether they dread the prospect of spending hours bent over a dead person, they don't have a lot of time to think about the idea: The lab comes up during the first eight weeks of a student's first year at medical school.

Before formal study begins, students have an opportunity to go into the lab early, look at their assigned cadaver, and get used to the idea of dissecting a human being.

Elbert S. Huang '92 was one of the students who took advantage of the preview. "I thought I needed to do that," he says.

Although Jennifer B. Ogilvie '91 was too busy to come in early, she says she does feel that "we were really well prepared." While all medical schools try to ready first-year students for the experience of working with cadavers, Ogilvie thinks Harvard is particularly sensitive to students' fears and concerns.

It's not as if one lecture answers all the questions, says Dr. Daniel A. Goodenough '66, one of two course directors for "The Human Body." Talking to students about the bodies is "a very complex and long process. It goes on throughout the eight weeks," he says.

Goodenough distributes materials he's written, including one article he wrote for Ann Landers' column. The article responded to a reader's question about "what it means when you donate your body to a medical school," he says.

"There are a lot of very important learning issues that come up with this," says Goodenough. Preparing students to work on cadavers is not simply about "the horrors of looking at the dead," he says. It also introduces them to a way of thinking about living patients' "boundaries" and the need for physicians to respect the sanctity of the body even as they are permitted to violate those boundaries.

Goodenough also gives each student a copy of a letter written by a woman who donated her body to medical school.

The letter, which expresses the woman's hopes that her body would contribute to their study of human anatomy, was "touching," students agree. "It was amazing to read beforehand," says Ogilvie. "She thought of her body as a gift to us," says Huang.

Long before students ever see a body, however, Jim E. Clerke, office manager of the Anatomical Gifts Program, files the donor's "instrument of anatomical gift." "All our donors are pre-registered," he explains.