A Study in Anatomy

A Study in Anatomy
Posted 13 July 2012 by Hannah Berry

It was a dark and stormy afternoon in the middle of July. On arrival we were given the guidelines and a blue gown each, before being shown into the next room. The temperature dropped almost imperceptibly, and the room was silent and spotless despite being full of people. We walked around slowly and carefully inspected them all, then opened our sketchbooks, sharpened our pencils and started to draw.

I guess you could call it a life class, except that all of the subjects in the room were dead.

A friend of mine who attends regular life classes found out about it. The medical school allows any of its students who wish to study the human form on a more artistic level into the dissection room for drawing sessions, during those brief periods when no anatomy classes are being run. From there it was only a short stretch to the occasional admission of artists who wanted to see the human form on a more medical level.

I’d never seen a dead body before. I had no idea what to expect, but I worried that it might be so horrific that I’d faint, or cry, or vomit, or laugh inappropriately. Fortunately, none of this happened. Once the initial edge wears off, the fascination takes over. We really are complicated things, you know: there’s a lot going on in there.

Everything was very respectful. The medical students in the group walked with the others and answered our questions: those are the brain’s ventricles, almost all lungs have some black in them from pollution, that’s a tumour, these veins are dyed for ease of recognition.

One of the medical students told me that the amount of knowledge they gain during their year of anatomy sessions is impossible to quantify – it forms the basis of their medical training and their understanding of the human body. Theoretical study can only go so far. And though it obviously wasn’t their primary purpose, it was hard to overestimate the value of these bodies in art, too.

There is nothing like drawing from life to get a handle on light and shade and form and texture; and nothing like a life class for understanding the human body, things like weight and posture and movement. But this, this is a step in understanding beyond anything I’d done before – to see what goes on underneath the skin, to see our inner workings laid bare, it was an incredible experience.

And, actually, quite a moving one. I thought I might leave feeling profoundly mortal and protective of the people around me – which happens sometimes if I hear about a terrible accident or witness something especially gory – but I didn’t. Instead, I feel a deep, intense gratitude. Gratitude to the medical school for giving us this opportunity, of course, but an overwhelming emotional gratitude to those who donated their bodies to science. What greater gift is there to education?

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