Hard to believe my grand-daughter is old enough to go to Uni. She is going to study physiotherapy and will be taking Anatomy with the medical students.
I started Anatomy when I was not quite 18 in 1949. We used a version of the original Gray’s Anatomy written by Henry Gray and illustrated by Henry Vandyke Carter. First published in 1859, it was extremely heavy – even heavier that this students’ edition – with beautiful hand-coloured drawings. This version is bang up-to-date with illustrations of the value of knowing your anatomy with X-rays and MRI scans. You can see by the turned-up bottom right corner of the cover that I’ve been looking things up for my memoir.
Extract from my memoir Woman in a White Coat
I was not quite 18 when term began at St Margaret’s Dental School in October 1949. We’d had our first lecture on the anatomy of the thorax and we were about to start on the dissection of the human body.
Wearing our new white coats and clutching our rolls of dissecting instruments, we waited in the subdued light of the basement corridor, nervous and excited. The portholes of the locked double doors of the dissecting room were filled with opaque wired glass. As we tried to peep through the gap between them, a cadaverous man in a brown laboratory coat came out of an adjoining room.
‘I’m George, the technician in charge,’ he said. ‘If you want anything, you have to go through me. Remember: no smoking, no fooling around and show respect.’He unlocked the doors and we filed in. An antiseptic smell, a mixture of carbolic acid and formalin, lay heavy in the air.
‘You dental students need to work in groups of four. Your tables are over there, under the window.’
‘But there are fifteen of us,’ Paul protested.
‘Well, one group will have to manage with three students. Try to include one of the ladies. She’ll keep things nice and tidy for you.’
The men tittered while we three women groaned.
Long metal tables filled the high ceilinged room. On each was a body covered with a grey linen sheet. It was very still, cathedral like. We spoke in whispers.
I went to the furthest table with my new friends, William and Oliver. I had sat next to them in our first psychology lecture. We’d giggled together at the professor’s interpretation of the underlying sexual message in everything, even in nursery rhymes. After that, we always sat together at lectures and in the refectory.
William was tall and thin, his wispy blond hair beginning to bald. Oliver was the opposite – short and tubby, with horn-rimmed glasses. He was the clown of the year, known for his impersonations of our professors.
Standing by our table, we each waited for one of the others to begin. I wanted to show I wasn’t a wimp and pulled back the grey sheet. I was shocked at the sight of the emaciated body of an elderly woman.
Dr John Taylor, our anatomy lecturer, breezed in.
‘Well, don’t stand around. Got your instruments and dissecting manuals? Make a median incision from the suprasternal notch to the pubis and turn back the skin flaps. Cut through the rib cage on either side of the sternum and lift out the breast plate.’
‘I’m not going first,’ William said. ‘I’m sure to cut something I shouldn’t.’
‘Well it won’t be fatal,’ said Oliver.
‘Stop it, you two,’ I said. ‘I’ll start.’
‘I’ll hold the dissecting manual for you,’ William said, with a sigh of relief.
Over the next few weeks, the three of us got used to dissecting as a team, got used to the smell permeating our clothes. It remained in our nostrils even when we were away from St Margaret’s.