At the heavy wooden doors they await, just as their ancestors once did, carried by horse and cart. Reclining in rows, one behind another, queuing to be wheeled through the second phase in this new journey of ‘donating one’s body to medical sciences’. The first of course, was the immediate moment after their hearts ceased beating and brains fell into cognitive silence. Papers signed and relatives notified, these people have chosen to place their bodies in the hands of young, curious men and women whose hunger for knowledge of the ‘inside’ will lead to the obliteration of their flesh and bone. The doors are unbolted and they are wheeled through to be prepared for the longevity of dissection in the DR, which unlike their ancestors whose bodies would not have withstood more than three or four days before intolerable decomposition resided. Selflessly after death, they are pumped of preservative and left to cure, whilst the scalpels are sharpened and students acclimatise to the task ahead. Unaware of the exact fate of their journey –thorax and abdominal for year one, lumbar region for Masters, head and neck for plastic surgeons, heart and aorta for trainee surgeons – they can be sure that at some point, in bits and pieces, sections and slices, they will be labelled, catalogued and stored for periodic examination to generate the knowledge necessary to sustain lives of others. One year ahead of now, their bodies in kilos of discarded flesh – collected over the months in brightly coloured clinical waste bags from dissections– will be gathered and they will queue up once again at the heavy wooden doors, albeit in pieces, to leave this residence and proceed to the next stage of their journey. The furnace. Cremation. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, medical students flock to the annual memorial service to honour their generosity, their gift of material humanness and for the way they’ve allowed them to take a look ‘inside’ that which only a privileged few ever get to experience. Back to the earth they will return.
For Eleanor and I, our trip to Glasgow was an enlightening and education experience, offered kindly by Dr Quentin Fogg (Senior Lecturer in Life Sciences Human Biology) with his commentary of the fruitful history of Glasgow’s Laboratory of Human Anatomy and Anatomy Museum, stories of William and John Hunter (the two eminent brother physicians of the 18th century) and his own opinions relating to anatomy education and human dissection. He showed us around the museum (open to the public), to the lecture theatre (where Allen Thomson, the appointed physician of 1848-1877, would refuse to enter his dissection demonstrations until there was suitable levels of jeering and foot stamping from his students), to the anatomy laboratory (where trainee ear surgeons were meticulous excavating the ear canals of specimen heads to locate the semicircular canals of individual’s cochleae), to the state of the art dissecting room (designed by Dr Fogg himself), to the mortuary (the first port of call for the donated bodies), before leaving us to our own devices to explore the richness of the environment and its content.
Listening intently to Dr Fogg whilst he relayed stories from past and present, I witnessed Eleanor subtly threading together words and phrases, repeating those that caught her attention out load. Images skipped through my mind, story after story, sketching, writing, capturing the essence of my imagination.
Eleanor was mostly drawn to the Obstetrics Collection of specimens and the plaster casts of the Gravid Uterus:
“I’m currently working on a collection of poetry that explores autobiographical memory. What has emerged from the collection (working title Reminiscence Bumps) is a need to explore my relationship with my mother, what it means to be female, the emergence of identity and lately an exploration of why I have chosen not to have children. Motherhood, the biological urge to have children is something Rachael and I discussed on the journey up. My lack of maternal instinct or drive is absolute, and although I’m only thirty four, and my mother keeps hoping I’ll change my mind, I find as I get older and my friends have children I feel even more strongly that motherhood really just isn’t for me.
It was probably because of this focus that I found myself drawn to the Anatomy Museum’s vast Obstetrics collection, particularly Hunter’s casts of the gravid uterus and the copies of van Rymsdyk’s engravings that hung on the wall. There was something so arresting about these life size casts of headless, nameless woman all displayed in a row; each woman and their unborn child captured for eternity. The Plaster of Paris painted blue, pink, red and yellow where the different layers of the gravid uterus have been peeled back. Women sliced open from sternum to pubis, the different casts displaying a variety of obstetric conditions such as placenta praevia (presumably the woman died from a massive placental abruption or antepartum haemorrhage) and there are also breech presentations, a baby with a cord around the neck, obstruction of the colon and bladder caused by a baby’s head stuck on a small pelvis. The women’s breasts in many casts are laid bare, their legs spread and amputated mid-thigh (presumably the legs were being dissected separately) the vulva are oedematous and in some cases dissected down to clitoris and urethra. In some of the casts the upper chests and cut legs are draped, in others no such covering is present. Is it any wonder I think when I look at these that I don’t want to put myself through the brutalities of pregnancy and birth?
I am conscious having worked in Obstetrics and Gynaecology as a junior doctor you only ever see things when they go wrong and that my feelings about pregnancy and birth may be somewhat negatively coloured by my experiences during my medical training. There is a fascination however that remains for me in embryological and obstetric specimens and displays such as these. I was fascinated by the stories Quentin Fogg told us about the Hunter brothers William and John and their tempestuous relationship. The idea of these two brothers fighting with each other over who had correctly identified the separate maternal and foetal circulations and the way the placenta functioned. Rachael and I both had an image in our head of each of them holding a woman’s leg and tearing her apart as they fought over who found out first. The male gaze is impossible not to pick up from these casts and the engravings. If women had dissected these women would they have displayed them so? The knowledge gained from these anatomical studies will undoubtedly have saved many women and babies lives. It is these things and more I will explore further in my writing. One working title of a poem is Painted Ladies – watch this space!”
Leeds trip next. It continues.