Dissecting Science Class

Oh, the right of passage that is one's first science class dissection. Mine were mostly uneventful, although I did give up clam chowder for 10 years after prying open one of those bivalves in 7th grade (my god, they have a "foot"!). All my specimens, whether fetal pigs or worms came to me very dead, soaked in formaldehyde. My mom didn't have it so easy.  Her teacher wanted to give the kids a glimpse at living anatomy. He doled out fully living and breathing frogs and told the class to administer an ether-soaked cotton ball, bop them on the head and then "pith" the spine (stick a needle-like thing through its vertebrae to scramble the spinal cord). All very sweet serial killer-type stuff for a bunch of 12-year olds (Charles Starkweather lived sort of near by...maybe they did that in his science class, too). 

Mom had landed a brain surgeon's son as her lab partner and thought she was home free.  They etherized, they bopped, they pithed, they split that guy open and pinned him down...and then that thing came back to life with the rage of an angry chimp.  It ripped itself off the wax tray and flailed about the room, innards exposed to the world.  I suppose it eventually died. My mortal fear of frogs (disemboweled or not) always reared its ugly head at that point and I never really let her finish telling the story.  I do sort of wish someone had been around to take a picture, though.

It seems a lot of people actually did like bringing cameras to anatomy labs.  John Harley Warner, chairman of Yale’s History of Medicine program, and James M. Edmonson, curator of a museum of medical memorabilia at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland have put together a tome of old dissection shots in their new book, Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930.  Today's NY Times offers up some nice anecdotes about the guys who cut up bodies during those times.

(Photo: Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, from “Dissection” via The New York Times)

More great images on the incomparable Morbid Anatomy blog.


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  3. Hannah says:

    I'm reading zoology at university so I expect dissection of larger animals will come up at some point (so far it's just been locusts and shellfish) but I do hope the same doesn't happen to me!

  4. mary says:

    And one guy was even smoking a pipe!!! Your poor mother! I would still be having nightmares and serious guilt. Thanks for the post.

  5. ACQUIRE says:

    Are the pipes meant to cover the formaldehyde smell?
    How strange.

  6. Theo says:

    in grade seven, we had a science competition. my entry was a series of fish skulls with attached charts etc (thank god for a fishing insane father).

    one entry, however, was very similar to your mother's. two live frogs nailed to a board and opened up. apparently at the end of the day when the teacher was trying to get rid of them, one hopped off the table and tried to scramble away.

    even as a 12 year old boy i was a bit freaked out, but they did win. after all, the competition was a bunch of smelly bones and a bicarb soda volcano...

  7. pke says:

    Thanks for writing about my dad's book!

  8. Kelly says:

    ha ha pretty funny story! I can just imagine the looks on the kids faces. Our teacher thought it was a good idea for us to skin and dissect kitties.
    Frightening at first, but I guess when the fur comes off they look like any other insides.

  9. Theo says:

    reminds me of the first time my mum cooked rabbit. Its similiarity to a skinned and beheaded baby was not let pass by my much younger self.

  10. they do say a dead frog will re-animate when passed over by a vampire. Not that I'm suggesting anything....