Behind a nondescript door in the basement of Adair Hall, two rows of blue lab coats hang on the walls, keeping watch over two silent residents. On Monday night at 6 p.m., 15 students will file in, don the coats, and gather around the room’s occupants to continue slicing away the skin of their charges. Here in the Dissection Human Anatomy Lab, the students will spend the semester studying the human body directly from its source — two cadavers donated in the name of science.
“It makes you realize how cool and complex the human body is, and how fragile,” Gaby Lapore ’11, a student in the class, said.
The College of William and Mary has offered a human dissection class for more than forty years, long before most other undergraduate institutions in the nation. The bodies are donated to the school through a willed cadaver program run by the Virginia state medical examiner’s office, which prepares the cadavers for various educational institutions like medical schools, physical therapy schools and universities.
“It’s one of the unique properties [of] the College, to have undergraduates do all the dissection,” professor Raymond McCoy said.
Many students each semester take advantage of the opportunity to see the workings of the human body up close. Kinesiology 314 meets once a week for four hours of lab, in addition to three hours of class lecture. It’s a big time commitment, but one that appeals to those preparing for careers in the health sciences. Chelsea Cottle ’11 is taking the class after deciding last summer that she wanted to be a nurse.
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” she said. “[I didn’t] think of the body as being a machine, [of] the beauty of how the body actually functions.”
This fall, students have the opportunity to work in a newly renovated laboratory. Down draft tables that continually suck away air from the room were installed over the summer, improving ventilation and diminishing the intensity of the cadavers’ odors.
“Humans are smelly on the inside,” Lapore said.
Long metal cases which sit on the tables reveal the plastic-wrapped bodies in various stages of dissection. Students begin with the large quadriceps muscles, and the bodies’ legs are stripped of skin and fat, revealing brownish muscle tissue. Bones sit in stacked Tupperware containers in the corner of the room. It is a fairly intimidating environment, and like several of her classmates, Cottle said she was a little bit nervous at the beginning.
“I saw [the cadaver] there, and I got that wave of creeped-out-[ed]ness,” she said. “It’s that moment [in which] you’re confronting something that’s so unfamiliar to you. At first it’s a little overwhelming, [and] something will gross you out.”
Initially, the faces and genitalia of the bodies are covered to help ease students into the potentially uncomfortable process of cutting into a real human body.
“The first class, the students are very hesitant and apprehensive,” McCoy said. “They usually go in and stand around the edge of the room. I cover the faces to depersonalize the body, and that helps a lot for me and everyone who works on the body.”
Although the cadavers’ identities are protected, their individuality cannot be completely hidden.
According to Lapore, unique physical traits demonstrate human diversity, and sometimes even show personality.
“The man has tattoos on his arms and his back,” Lapore said. “The woman has her fingernails painted bright pink.”
These intimate details, combined with their professor’s instruction, have inspired a deep respect for the bodies among the students.
“It’s a gift to our department,” Cottle said.
“Everyone’s overwhelming feeling is being humbled by the fact that people have been kind enough to donate their bodies,” she said.
Upon the semester’s conclusion, McCoy takes the bodies’ remains to a crematorium, then mails the ashes to the various families that request them. Two new bodies will arrive in the spring for a brand new group of interested students to study and appreciate.
“I think it’s an honor to be able to teach the students about the human body in this way,” McCoy said. “To be able to see the actual structures in the bodies is memorable, to say the least.”
“This is knowledge you absolutely will never ever, ever forget,” she said.