Skeletons from hospital graveyard shed light on early dissections

first_imgSAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—Human dissection: It’s better than it used to be. That’s the conclusion Jenna Dittmar of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has come to after studying skeletons excavated from a hospital graveyard in England, as well as those stored by universities and medical museums. In a talk here today at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science), she described tracking the change in dissection practices between 1650 and 1900. The excavations often turn up lone limbs and skulls, long separated from the rest of the body, probably indicating that one cadaver would often have been split between many students. A dissectable body was a “very valuable resource,” because there weren’t that many of them around, Dittmar explained. In the early 1820s, for example, there would have been about 700 medical students in London needing to share 52 legally available cadavers. Dittmar uses scanning electron microscopes to examine the cut marks medical students and other dissectors left behind on the bones of their subjects. Those detailed images allow her to reconstruct the kinds of tools that were common at different times. Before 1700, surgical instruments were more like “woodworking tools” than the precision equipment used today, she said. Gradually, the saws got thinner and thinner, and the cuts more and more refined. Techniques improved along with the tools. For example, early dissectors simply sawed off the top of the skull horizontally, which often damaged the brain. But Dittmar found that beginning in the late 1880s, dissectors began cutting a delicate arc across the back of the skull, a technique that protected the fragile organ. Vertical cuts like the one seen on the skull pictured above were more rare and served more specific purposes. This specimen was found in the University of Cambridge’s collection and was likely used as a teaching tool in medical school classrooms. Check out our full coverage of the AAAS annual meeting.What message would you send into space? 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