University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Gross Anatomy!

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Mark Twain

Second semester of freshman year took us into gross anatomy under the famous Bull Smith. I tried as hard to stay distant from “The Bull’s” bellicosity as I did to stay close to Cummins’s gentility. I was under the impression that this worked, but The Bull of legend, was, in fact, a sensitive man and devoted teacher. He probably knew us better than we suspected.

If I think back carefully I can conjure up the challenge of most of the major dissections we carried out under The Bull’s scrupulous pedagogy. The overall ground rules, assignments, discipline, and motivations were in Smith’s charge, while super-specialists guided us through such intricacies as brain, head and neck, or pelvic plexus dissection.

I recall particularly the quiet confidence and mastery of B.B. Weinstein, who helped us to see and dissect and preserve the pelvic nerves, vessels, and lymphatics, and our wonderment when he quietly mentioned one day that it was possible to make mistakes even with an experience of some 500 detailed dissections in that anatomic region. Some time later we learned that this master anatomist and gynecologic surgeon, who wrote his anatomy doctoral thesis on the pelvic sympathetic nerves, had suffered a lawsuit and disciplinary action after performing pelvic surgery in which he, unbelievably, ligated and divided (I think I have it straight) a ureter rather than a uterine artery!

I recall, too, the loyalty and good humor of the dieners who supervised our cadavers, and the respect with which they treated the bodies, mainly of indigenous black persons unclaimed from the Orleans Parish morgue. We became inured to physical suffering as we dissected our way through the long, humid New Orleans summer of 1945, with all windows shut tight and no air conditioning, so that the cadavers would not dry out. We became so used to dwelling with the dead in our gruesome routine that we could rest our sandwiches on the bodies, taking occasional bites between dissections. And we were so impressed with the severe penalty for desecrating cadavers (immediate expulsion from medical school) that most of us had at least one small sample of skin fashioned surreptitiously into a watch band or fob. Riding home on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, we would be embarrassed on occasion when a humerus or a femur would spill out on the floor as we attempted to memorize its muscle origins and insertions.

Life wasn’t all scholarly, of course. But from the considerable perspective of today, I would say that few parts of life are more dramatic, challenging, or enriching than freshman year medicine.

In spring of 1945, the world suddenly turned very serious. We still had a war raging on two fronts, when suddenly we lost our leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. We Feel Leaderless, Fatherless, and Quintessentially Sad.

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