Wednesday, May 09, 2012


This is going to be something completely different. Be forewarned: I do discuss (very generally) dissections here, so if you're super-squeamish, you might wish to avoid.

A friend and I were talking about dissections. She wanted to know what the most disgusting thing I had to dissect was.

And I got to thinking about it. There were dissections I've done that I found hard to do, but not really any that horribly grossed me out. (Of course, I wasn't teaching the Intro Bio lab the semester they got a batch of clams that had been improperly preserved and were spoiled. I think that would be pretty awful.)

The hardest dissection I actually ever did was a preserved rat. Rats are a lot like humans in terms of internal anatomy. So it was like looking at the insides of a human, just a lot smaller and inside a different "casing." I found that kind of hard to do, I mean, emotionally, because there was the feeling that "this was a being not that much different from you." I'm totally not an animal-rights activist in the sense of "no dissections ever!" and I've set and emptied rat-traps when they got into my garage....but still, there's something a little strange and sad about looking at the innards of another mammal.

We never did cats. I think I would find cats much worse, emotionally speaking. For one thing, they're larger, and therefore closer in size to a "real" human. But also, having HAD cats all my growing up years....I'd probably be able to gut up and do it if I had to but I know I'd find it hard.

I never took Gross Anatomy. I've seen the human cadavers, both the ones used in teaching here, and ones I got to observe more closely, years ago, when my AP Biology class (the class I took. I've never taught AP Bio...) went to one of the nearby medical schools to observe.

I think I would find dissecting a human cadaver very, very hard. (There's a reason I knew I didn't want to become a medical doctor). I know: the cadavers are the remains of people who chose this as a way of dealing with their mortal remains. And I know that the "person" that made that body a "person" has now moved on....that the body that remains is just the shell, just the machinery. But I still think I'd find it eerie and sort of sad.

I know my AP Bio teacher talked about, and my colleague who does Gross Anatomy here emphasizes, how important it is for the students working on the cadaver to treat it with some respect. This was a person. This was someone who had relatives, family, friends. I don't know what the ultimate fate of my department's cadavers is, but I know the ones at the med school I visited in AP Bio, they said they cremated the remains after the cadaver had been used up. And they held a non-denominational/multifaith memorial service. And if any of the relatives of the person who left their body to science were around to be contacted, they were invited. I suppose beyond the simple measure of respect, there's a lesson in empathy and in seeing others as human - ethics - there for the students.

We did dissect fetal pigs in AP Bio. I didn't find that particularly difficult but I was younger and more callous than I am now. Also, the pigs had been injected with latex - red for arteries, blue for veins - and that made them seem a little unreal. (Several of us got pigs where one of the blood vessels had burst during that process and there was a blob of latex surrounding the internal organs). One of the guys in the class got in big trouble because he removed the snout and put it in his girlfriend's student mailbox. (He got in trouble with the teacher, and I'm also fairly certain his girlfriend broke up with him. I think I would have, in her situation). I think that falls under the "not treating your sample with the respect due to what was once a living being."

(Now that I think of it: there was at least one Jewish and one Muslim student in that class: I went to a pretty diverse high school. But I don't remember anyone complaining or saying they shouldn't have to touch the pigs. I wonder how that would be handled now.)

I've never done a frog. And, thank God, I've never had to pith a frog. I do think that's something I would not be able to do.

I've also dissected perch, but didn't find that hard: I fished as a kid and already kind of knew the internal anatomy (friends of my family owned a large plot of land with a pond, and we were invited to go there and fish. I remember the woman of the family helping us clean fish and she pointed out a lot of the internal stuff like the swim bladder and told us what they were for). Also, fish are pretty different in terms of anatomy from mammals. Of course, with dissecting a lab-sample perch, it's been preserved, so you can't fillet it up and cook it, or fry up the egg sacs if it has them.

I've done lots of invertebrate dissections.

To be honest? Starfish are pretty cool. The internal organs are simple and easy to find, and there's just something interesting about starfish because they are so different.

Crayfish can be kind of interesting, but if they're not well-preserved, they can stink, and also, the internal parts all kind of look the same. If you're one of the hard-core lobster eaters where you've taken apart a steamed lobster to get the tomalley, you've pretty much done a similar dissection.

Other arthropods....we used to do big grasshoppers - they're kind of hard to work with because of the exoskeleton. We also did a lot of external-anatomy stuff on different things. Arachnids, for example. It's interesting in sort of a horrible way to do them with a class, because you learn who is terribly arachnophobic (won't even approach the specimen), who is sort of arachnophobic (will do it, because they know the specimen is dead, but are not comfortable with it), and those who are not at all arachnophobic. And yes, I am sensitive to the people who can't do it, and I have strong-armed a couple of the non-arachnophobes when they wanted to try to force the scared people to confront the specimens.

(I once had a student who was afraid of birds and would not approach the bird specimens we had out on the table. It takes all kinds and unless someone is terrified of a species and yet plans to go into a career where they will have to regularly work with the species - which just seems strange to me - I don't press the issue)

Clams are disappointing, or at least I found them to be: everything on the inside looks more or less the same. Also, after years of dissecting clams I find I cannot eat mussels or oysters or any kind of shellfish that is "intact" because I think of all the gonads and stomach and stuff like that inside the animal and it grosses me out. I can still eat scallops because they are just one of the muscles (the shell adductor muscle, I think?), and it's the same with 'clam strips." Or minced clams in spaghetti sauce or chowder. But whole shellfish, with all their unfortunate inside bits intact? Sorry, not for me.

Snails and slugs are kind of gross. Not horribly so, but they kind of shrivel in the preservative and take on the texture of really worn-out rubber, like the eraser on a pencil that's been sitting in a hot car for six months. So they're hard to cut neatly.

Earthworms are actually kind of neat. You can usually see the different structures pretty well and earthworms have  a fairly interesting anatomy. They can be hard to dissect well, though, because again, the outer skin gets kind of leathery in the preservative.

Roundworms are simple but kind of boring. There's the gut, there are the gonads. That's about it.

I don't think we ever actually dissected jellyfish though we did have preserved specimens of them. They're a lot more interesting when they're alive and swimming.

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