University of Southern California
Artist & Gallery


The Laboratory

The impact of the anatomy laboratory begins with the smell of the formaldehyde. It dries one's nose. Yet the air conditioning was six times normal use. I could tell if my copper plates really had it, if they had the odor a week later. The voices of the students were high pitched. They were trying so hard to learn what seemed to be an unconquerable mass of information. And in the beginning it seemed extremely unrelated to what they had studied before! It seemed that there was a need to keep it unrelated, because of the awesomeness of it. There was the jolt of seeing the dead body for the first time. It was not only seeing it once and walking away, but a matter of seeing it day after day, touching it and manipulating it and exploring it. The smell and visceral response evoked a great many new thoughts about their own personal philosophy of life, but I do not believe that the students were aware of that then. As long as the stocking cap was over the cadaver's face, it was possible to deny the shape's humanness.

The lecture, the hour preceding the laboratory period, introduced the subject for the afternoon, and the entire anatomy faculty as well as Dr. J.C. Boileau Grant were in the lab helping the students correlate the mass of data into a meaningful whole. The illustrations in their Atlas were schematized, in contrast to the body itself. The staff helped the student use these drawings as road maps. The dissections seemed like a treasure hunt, a "can I find it" activity, only with odds much, much greater than ever in a child's game.

The sparse decor of the room and the intense lighting gave a different look to the room from any I had seen before. Solemnly silhouetted against the strong north windows were the students, skeletons and tanks, and in the softer foreground were groups, some sitting relaxed, probing and quizzing each other, some diagraming on the chalkboard, others checking the skeletons. Those standing were more anxious, and huddled over the body on the tank bed. By now I was aware of the miscellaneous silly jokes. Anything could make a joke. There was an overwhelming amount of material to be assimilated in a very short period of time, and the jokes were low comedy relief. It was early Saturday afternoon and only a few students were left in the large room when I did this plate. My own husband was still in his office, and the student near me had given away his tickets to the varsity football game to study more. I watched him dissect and redissect the same area. He seemed more scared than anything else, and his cadaver had become stringy. "Mike, what do you think about bringing your wife a box of candy tonight?" She was working to send him through medical school. "Oh, I sent candy last week!" "Flowers this time?"

-May Lesser

Excerpt & image from: Lesser, May H. The Art of Learning Medicine. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts; 1974. p. 2-3.

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