(Not So) Gross Anatomy

Jun 2, 2015

For medical students enrolled in Gross Anatomy class, a rite of passage is dissecting human bodies. But putting hands on a real body is impractical for students who won’t eventually become doctors, however, technology is providing some new options.

Early last month, the University of Northern Iowa became the first school in the state to bring synthetic cadavers or Syndavers into the classroom.  UNI Biology lecturer Mary McDade says they closely resemble real human structures in size, feel and complexity. She says “in the past we’ve been dissecting cats, they have some similarities but most of these students are pre- professional, pre- nursing pre- medicine, or physician assistants and they’re going to be working on humans.”

UNI Biology Department Head David Saunders says the Syndavers are ideal for their purposes. He says” students don’t have to worry or concentrate that they’re working on a dead body, they can concentrate on learning anatomy.”

But sometimes using human bodies in the classroom is the right choice.  Director of the Deeded Body Program at the University of Iowa Brian Chapman explains medical students often need to use the real thing. He says “there are certain techniques that can’t perform on a synthetic body or once that’s been embalmed, they need a fresh one with no chemicals in the body.”

The Deeded Body Program at the UI has been accepting donors since 1968. Chapman says they receive nearly 250 a year nearly double when the program first started. He explains, “We will utilize the person to the fullest extent and when the studies are done we’ll do a cremation and return the ashes to the family.

Chapman says if the cremains are not claimed within one year, they will be buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. 

Using real human bodies has its drawbacks, Students can only use them for about a year before it’s just not practical to continue. Synthetic cadavers can be used again and again, but they’re expensive. The four at UNI cost 40 thousand dollars each. The newest option is a virtual cadaver, the UI’s Darren Hoffman has been one using in his classroom.

Hoffman is a lecturer in the Anatomy and Cell Biology department.  He explains that the virtual cadaver has opened new doors for those who in the past were prohibited from working on bodies. He says “we were particularly focused on students in other parts of the world where dissection is not an option because of faith based or cultural backgrounds where dissection wouldn’t even be an option.”

Hoffman has been immersed in all things virtual for the past seven years, but he admits while working with human cadavers is time consuming being in close contact with human remains offers many intangible experiences, “learning about death, connectedness between people,  these are just things that happen almost automatically in a gross anatomy class. You can probably spend your whole life.”

Synthetic cadavers, virtual ones or real human bodies all have their place in the classroom. They’re helping students learn things a textbook or a dead cat could never teach them.