Is the Cadaver Dead? Cutting Up a Corpse to Learn Human Anatomy Has Always Been a Rite of Passage in Medical School. Those Days May End

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Byline: David Noonan

It is one of the oldest traditions in medicine. For generations, medical students have begun their training by dissecting a dead body. But now this gory rite of passage, which many consider essential to the creation of educated and well-rounded physicians, may itself be dying. As new disciplines like genomics and neuroscience have emerged over the last 30 years, the number of hours students spend on gross anatomy has decreased steadily. No one sees this trend reversing, and many in the field expect that cadaver dissection will eventually be reserved for those students interested in anatomically oriented fields like surgery and radiology.

For the other students, cadaver dissection will be replaced by the study of "prosections"--predissected body parts--and an array of increasingly sophisticated images available on CD-ROM and the Web. Prosections offer students a neater, cleaner way to examine a particular limb or organ. The computer images enable them to explore the human body as easily as they might play a videogame.

Both are currently in wide use, and Dr. Geoffrey Guttmann, assistant professor of anatomy at the University of Saskatchewan College of Medicine, considers them more than adequate for students who plan on entering general practice. "As family practitioners, they need to know generally how to poke around the surface anatomy of a person," he says. "They need to know how the organs are arranged and what's going on there. But they don't need to have their hands necessarily inside the cadaver to get the total feel. …