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

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

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 bbc.co.uk

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.

From Dissections to Death Masks: The Anatomical Museum, The University of Edinburgh

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk


Last weekend I was finally able to satisfy my curiosity of what lay behind the 19
th century doors of The University of Edinburgh’s School of Medicine and Anatomical Museum.

Located on Teviot Place, The Anatomical Museum at the University has not long been open to the public. Now welcoming visitors through its grand gates on the last Saturday of every month, it instantly absorbs you into its stony walls of history and heritage. The museum, which opened as part of the new Medical School in 1884, was founded by the renowned Monro dynasty; 3 generations of Alexander Monro’s whose teaching spanned 126 years occupying the Chair of Anatomy at the University, one after the other through the 18th and 19th century. The grand lobby looms over you with two enormous elephant skeletons from either side. As an eager anatomist, your eyes don’t know where to settle first; the enormous jaw bones of a whale, the huge replica of Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ or the many portraits and busts of famous anatomists from days gone by.

Dissection Theatre

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

As a former student of anatomy and as somebody who is fascinated by its teaching from days gone by, I was completely awestruck as I entered the dissection theatre which is still in use as a lecture theatre today. The beautiful rounded room is centred by a relatively small space that once was host to the magnificent spectical that medical students would flock to see; a human body. It’s tightly packed rows of seats are incredibly steep providing views of the cadaver to even those less-than-eager students in the back row. Sitting in one of the leather-like fold down chairs three quarters of the way to the back, I looked down upon the anatomical demonstration videos of Acland Anatomy that were projected onto the wall below. It was quite overwhelming to think that I was sitting in the very seats that would have looked upon the teaching of the famous Monro dynasty and the many cadavers that graced their dissection tables.

Death Masks

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The museum has a fascinating collection of 40 life and death masks on display which eerily look out onto the museum and its curious visitors from the far wall that they occupy. Originally belonging to the Edinburgh Phrenological Society, the collection which is now owned by the William Ramsey Henderson Trust shows some well known faces from scientists and politicians to criminals and historical figures. To literally come face to face with pioneering Scottish anatomist and surgeon John Hunter and buyer of Burke and Hare’s bodies Robert Knox alongside notorious figures such as William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar is an experience that can only be personified by the true anatomical cast of the individual’s face.

Burke and Hare

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

Photograph by Hugh Pastoll via www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk

The notorious Westport Murderers are well known historical characters in Edinburgh. Known across the world as the ruthless bodysnatchers who took the lives of at least 16 Edinburgh residents from 1827 to 1828 to capitalise from the high demand for cadavers in the the dissecting rooms of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Once their crimes were discovered and they were both detained, Hare was offered immunity from prosecution if he would confess and agree to testify against Burke. His testimony set him free and committed Burke to execution by hanging in Edinburgh on January 28, 1829. His body was dissected at The University of Edinburgh and his skeleton preserved, articulated and displayed. Now on view at the museum (minus the two phalanges from the 3rd toe on his right foot…), visitors can come face to face with this shady character from Edinburgh’s past, a vivid reminder of how far anatomy and its teaching have come since those dark days in the early 1800s.

To find out more about the Anatomical Museum, visit their website at www.anatomy.mvm.ed.ac.uk