Quick and dirty guide to medical school: Anatomy

March 24, 2007 at 1:16 am (1st and 2nd year)

For many first-year medical students, anatomy is the daunting right of passage that introduces them to the medical profession.  Courses such as biochemistry and genetics require lots of outside studying, but only anatomy brings with it the cadaver lab.  I remember wearing the scrubs and going into the lab for the first time.  The nervousness of the first cut.  The smell of the formaldehyde.  The chill in the room from a thermostat that was set in the 60’s.  For many students, the stench alone is overwhelming.  At many schools, the anatomy lab is in the basement of the building where the smell lingers long after the course is over.  At my university, the lab is on the top floor.  We have a negative pressure machine that sucks out the bad air and brings in fresh air.  It’s kind of like Tai chi: out with the bad air, in with the good.  While the lab doesn’t quite smell like Calvin Klein, it doesn’t burn my nostrils whenever I walk in.

Whenever I give tours to applicants who are interviewing, I’m always asked about the student:body ratio.  To this day, I do not understand why the student:body ratio is so important.  I’ve never met someone who says, “I picked the University of Virginia because it has such a small ratio.”  I advise applicants to go to the school with the largest student:body ratio.  Lab consists of a lot of cutting and scraping fascia.  You want as many students as possible so that you’ll have to spend less time in the lab.  Much of that time could be better spent studying.

I personally disliked anatomy.  The course involves tons of memorization with little effort to correlate material with disease.  I would rather see schools move away from cadaver labs and employ radiographs for teaching anatomy.  No physician—not even a surgeon—will have to know the type of anatomy that is taught in medical school.  Further, much of that information will be lost as soon as the final exam is over.  With radiographs, however, we can ensure that the material is more useful.  Every doctor—including primary care docs—need to know how to interpret X-rays and MRI’s.  By using radiographs, students could set aside more time to studying anatomy, and less time to cutting on dead bodies.

Lots of people have difficulty wrapping their heads around anatomy.  I’m certainly not the person who should be giving out advice on studying for the subject.  I can say that there are numerous resources available online that can give you reviews and practice quizzes.  But even with these websites, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time repeatedly going over the material.

There is a trend at some medical schools to adopt a closing ceremony at the end of the course.  Since you’ve just violated a cadaver in the worst way, schools figure that you need to be reminded that you’ve been working on people—someone’s father or daughter or sister.  Whenever someone dies, the family goes through a grieving process.  Since the anatomy course lasts a year, the family won’t get the ashes of the cremated loved one back until a year or more after his or her death.  At that later time, the family will have to re-live the grieving process again.  At some universities—not mine—the families are invited to the closing ceremony so that students can thank the bodies for giving themselves up to become teachers.

In summary: you’ll get over the nervousness rather quickly, study hard to pass the tests, and know that you’ll always crave chicken whenever you get out of lab.



  1. Me said,

    I’m an M2 now, but I also disliked anatomy. I almost feel like its taboo as a med student to say that you did not like anatomy. But spending so many hours in the anatomy lab was nauseating and in the end I learned all the structures from my Netters.

  2. single said,

    I can’t believe my eyes! Anatomy is the basis of medicine, without it you don’t have any logical thinking, you are not able to say why and how a disease spreads over the whole body. I have had “normal anatomy” and also clinical anatomy and I absolutely adore this subject.

  3. audiomosaic said,

    Good blog. Solid stuff -especially the economics stuff — and I will definitely be back for a more in-depth read…

    I read this quickly as well, from the top posts section. I’m an M3 at another allopathic school in the US. I think the point you make about the way anatomy is taught at most allopathic programs gets lost to the follow up of forced memorization is a good one, but most of the 1st two years are like that — so that’s not saying much. Sure, anatomy is taught in this naked, unapplied form, without a ton of correlates, but there are enough blue boxes in the 1,000-page Moore’s Clinical Anatomy to help you with that along the way, especially if you have time to read. In my experience rotating through an ENT surgery floor, there was a lot from the cadaver and the Netter that were extremely relevant to decision making.

    Getting rid of the cadavers gets you farther away from the realization, early on, that you are going to be working on people — not images in radiographs — which is important for many students to make in their first year. And if anything, working with cadavers gets you familiar with the sort of variation that exists between the textbook knowledge and what it looks like in real, preserved life. However, I would agree that working more radiographs into anatomic education early in the pre-clinical years is undoubtedly useful and that is an excellent suggestion. I am curious to hear your opinion on virtual dissections, as they have been suggested at my school.

    Too bad you’ve stopped blogging, best of luck in residency.


  4. ebenezer said,

    wat ca anatomist, can dey b surgeon?

  5. Reginald Van Gleason said,

    we even took our cadaver to the football game. he was more fun that most people.

  6. Hadeezah jibril said,

    haha I’m just starting medical school and its going on great

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