Death, Dissection and Delight: The University of Dundee and CAHID

Photograph by Maja Daniels; Getty Images. via Financial Times Magazine,

Photograph by Maja Daniels; Getty Images via Financial Times Magazine. Read the full article

Yesterday the Financial Times published an article about the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee.

Established in 2008, a year after I left the Dundee anatomy lab behind, CAHID is now a world leading centre in human identification, lending its expertise to global natural disasters, criminal identification and facial reconstruction. Police and forensic teams now travel from around the globe to receive training and guidance from Professor Sue Black and her expert team who have recently been awarded the prestigious Queens Anniversary Prize for their ground breaking work.

The facial reconstruction of King Richard III. Photography by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images via National Geographic News

The facial reconstruction of King Richard III. Photography by Dan Kitwood, Getty Images via National Geographic News

Perhaps most famously, CAHID were responsible for the impressive reconstruction of the face of Richard III whose skeleton was found under a car park in Leicester during an archaeological dig in 2013. One of the most enjoyable modules of my degree was Biological Identity which was taught by Prof Caroline Wilkinson who is now professor of craniofacial identification at the centre. In an article by BBC News she commented on the project: “It was a great privilege to be able to analyse a skull thought to be Richard III. The facial reconstruction was produced on the assumption that the remains were unknown and portraits of Richard III were not used as reference.”

A comparison between traditional formalin embalming (left) and the more realistic Thiel technique (right)

A comparison between traditional formalin embalming (left) and the more realistic Thiel technique (right) Original photographs via

But CAHID are now breaking ground in different ways. Some of you may be aware of the Thiel embalming process; a technique pioneered in Austria that produces life-like cadavers for medical study, improving surgical training with undeniable real-life textures which simply cannot be achieved with the rubbery, lifeless results of traditional embalming with formalin. Now receiving approximately 75 body donations per year (some 40 more than when I started there in 2003),  Prof Sue Black’s  ‘Million for a Morgue’ project has resulted in brand new state-of-the-art Thiel embalming facilities which happen to be the only of their kind in the UK.

A plastinated hand, from the University of Otago featured in the New Zealand Medical Journal

A plastinated hand, from the University of Otago featured in the New Zealand Medical Journal

When, as a school pupil at the young age of 17, I visited the anatomy department at the University of Dundee for the first time, I knew I had discovered a life-changing place. On that day in 2002 I met one of the “three men all over 60” who managed the department as mentioned by Prof Black, Dr Christie. By then I knew that I wanted to study anatomy, the question was where. The leading university in the country for its degree, Dundee was always going to be tough to beat, but after visiting the department at the University of Glasgow during their post-application open day, I needed more than their ‘what is anatomy?’ poster on the wall to impress me. Dr Christie was a gentle, older gentleman who was smartly dressed and whose softly spoken voice welcomed you into the small anatomical museum in the Medical Sciences Institute. (Little did I know at the time that the dissection room was just the other side of those specimen-lined walls.) The small group of parents and their ambitious but apprehensive teenagers listened keenly to Dr Christie’s description of the course and the department’s facilities, fighting the temptation to be distracted completely by the specimens, models and bones that decorated the modest room. From nowhere, like a magician, he produced a brain and a hand, cut off just above the wrist; to say I sat up in my seat would be an understatement. As the specimens were passed around the room (we were getting to hold real body parts! But we had no gloves…) Dr Christie told us the background of the prosections which had been painstakingly dissected and in fact plastinated by none other than Gunther von Hagens, years before he was known to the public for his ghoulish exhibitions and televised human dissections. Well, that was it. It seems dramatic to say I’d fallen in love, but I thought about that little room, the jars that lined the walls, von Hagens’ specimens and Dr Christie’s gentle pronunciation of the word ‘dissected’ constantly until I walked through the doors again as a first year Anatomical Sciences student over a year later in 2003.

And of the other “three men all over 60”? One would turn out to be my true inspiration and an uncle away from home….


Read the FT article and interview with Prof Sue Black here
Read more about undergraduate, postgraduate and short courses run by CAHID here.


Tabulae Anatomicae: The Lost Plates of Italy’s Eustachi

Eustachi_title crop
Title plate, Tabulae Anatomicae, Bartolomeo Eustachi.

Considered the most meticulous and thorough anatomist of his time, physician and anatomist Bartolomeo Eustachi (d.1574) not only had a career embellished with anatomical discoveries and pioneering practices, but was author to one of the discipline’s most influential texts; Tabulae Anatomicae.

Thought to have studied medicine in Rome and Padua, Italy, Eustachi served as physician to the Duke of Urbino and Cadinal Giulio Della Rovere in Rome where, as a lecturer in anatomy, he is said to have introduced the practice of hospital post-mortem examinations.  He is credited with many significant findings of the human body including the discovery of the thoracic duct and adrenal glands as well as providing the first accurate descriptions of the uterus, laryngeal muscles and origin of the optic nerve. Perhaps most famously, he is celebrated for the discovery of the passage linking the middle ear to the nasopharynx; the Eustachian tube.

Ear diagramCopyright: Tangient LLC

Eustachi published Opuscula Anatomica in 1564 which featured eight anatomical plates, mainly detailing the kidneys and vascular system. There were an additional thirty eight copperplates that he had prepared with illustrator Pietro Matteo Pini and engraver Giulio de’ Musi which went unused up until Eustachi’s death in 1574. These remaining plates were forgotten until they were discovered in the Vatican Library by the Pope’s physicist Giovanni Maria Lancisi who published the plates in 1714 under the title Tabulae Anatomicae (Anatomical Tables). It illustrated the human body in a way that had rarely been seen before. The use of copper-plates provided greater detail and precision than the wooden-plates of previous works such as Versalius’ De Humunai Corporis Fabrica, 1543 could produce. Omitting the numbered and lettered labelling which were the favoured annotation methods of the time, Eustachi had used an inventive coordinate system created by rulers that bordered his images. He had pioneered an uncluttered and clear representation of the human form which, coupled with immaculate hand colouring, created the most vivid, vibrant and rousing anatomical illustrations up unto their time.


I Heart Anatomy: A Lifelong Craving For A Curious Science


Firstly, thank you for stopping by. I guess the best introduction is an introduction

I was very lucky to begin my degree in Anatomical Sciences in 2003 at the University of Dundee; Scotland’s only remaining university to use whole class full human cadavers for dissection. Throughout my degree the legendary Dr David L. Dawson, (who never wore gloves for dissection) led the class through the amazing anatomy-lab journey of the human body, from breaking the ice with bum-cheeks on the first day to brains, eyeballs and everything else. Yes. Everything.

Upon graduating, I worked for the university as a post-graduate demonstrator for a year. I then moved to Edinburgh, the home of Burke and Hare, in hope of wider opportunities and a future in the anatomy lab. With the recession deepening as time went on, this didn’t turn out to be the case. After working in business development and administration, I am now happily settled in the events industry, based in Leith, Edinburgh. However, not a day goes by when I don’t miss dearly the wonder that anatomy and the honour that dissection brought to the ‘working week’.

I felt the time had come to record my thoughts, favourite findings and curiosities which some of you may have already come across through The Irregular Anatomist’s Twitter and Facebook page, established earlier this month.

Join me here to delve into the wonderful world of anatomy, cadavers, body snatching and the history of medicine as well as an insight into the trends, fashion and designs that continue to draw inspiration from this fascinating and curious science.