Not all medical students have to dissect cadavers as part of their medical training. Some schools however, particularly the more established and long-running, do make it compulsory. But this answer also depends on local and national laws permitting access to cadavers, as well as the supply.
In my own experience as an international student at a Eastern European school, I personally didn’t have to dissect cadavers. But I did have to identify, touch and observe cadavers during gross anatomy classes, neuroanatomy and splanchnology. As well as sometimes do this unsupervised, alone with colleagues.
What is Cadaver Dissection?
Cadaver dissection is the act of dismembering a dead human body in order to learn more about its anatomy. It is intended as a very precise act where students use scalpels or other knives to make incisions and strip away layers of flesh. The aim of the activity is to gain a greater understanding of the human body; its muscles, venous system and nerves.
Bulgaria, where I go to school, has difficulties gaining access to fresh cadavers due to lack of donors. But it is legally permitted by state and federal law to dissect them for educational purposes.
Due to the rarity of acquiring cadavers at my school at least, dissection is generally reserved for senior professors only. They make the incisions and leave the cadavers for observation by us. As students we respect lab rules; wear latex gloves and white coats while using anatomical tweezers to identify key structures.
Do Medical Students Still Use Cadavers?
Usually most medical students, irregardless of their schools, use dissection guides or work under the supervision of tutors to work on cadavers. It is very rare for a single student to have access to one cadaver. Almost always dissections are completed by a group.
Meaning it is possible (although rare) to pass anatomy without ever touching a dead body.
Still, cadaver dissection is considered a key part of medical school education in most of the world. And many universities will have dedicated laboratories and storage facilities for this purpose. As well as teams of technicians to ensure the space complies with sanitary regulations.
There may be exceptions to the use of cadavers for anatomical education in certain countries. Particularly those where religious reasons permits access to the deceased.
It’s also not unheard of for some Medical Universities to forego the use of cadavers entirely. Teaching medical students with anatomical models instead. Something which I’d be all for personally as a student.
To conclude; the use of cadavers is very much case-dependent and not uniform internationally, across the world. But it is common.
Do Dental Students Dissect Cadavers?
Not all dental students dissect cadavers. Whether they do or not is similar to the case of medical students. It depends on their program, their University and country of study. As well as accessibility to cadavers.
Dental students at my University undergo a very similar experience to us medical students. They too observe and identify dissected bodies but don’t do the cutting themselves. This may be different depending on where you go to school.
Anatomy is a key subject on a dental curriculum however so dissections can be an expected part of their student experience.
Can You Choose Not to Dissect a Cadaver?
The short answer is no. If your school has a dissection class and you need to pass it in order to further your degree than you’ll most likely have to participate.
It’s importance, given its existence on your curriculum, dictates as much.
Personally I never saw or heard of a single student – in my cohort at least – have the option to opt out of class in the dissection hall. But I did see several students faint or have to leave for a few moments.
As you can imagine, the situation can be intense.
There is one more potential answer to this question however. It relates to the act of dissection and being tasked as the student who wields the knife.
Because most dissections are done as group work you might be able to successfully evade making any kind of cut on a cadaver. Observing your colleagues, professor or supervisor do the work instead.
But again this is no certainty.
My Personal Experiences in the Dissection Hall
It can be quite a shock to the system to walk into the anatomy lab on day one. The environment is cold. The lights are bright. The thermostat is turned down.
What Is It Like to Dissect a Cadaver?
I remember the first time I saw a cadaver, even though it had been part-dissected, as somewhat alarming. It was zipped out of a white body-bag and presenting on a hard steel table. I didn’t know how to react.
Like all things though, the more you see it, the more you get used to it.
Now I’d be happy enough in the environment, working around a body and demonstrating to other students the finer details of the visible nerves, veins an arteries. Even if that might sound odd to others.
My thoughts on whether cadavers are necessary to effectively teach anatomy though? That’s where it gets complicated.
Yes I see the value of observing a cadaver dissection to learn the intricacies of how a body is structured. There is nothing quite like the real thing. And being as clinical as possible from day one in med school is entirely necessary in order to train efficient doctors.
But I also feel that learning from models can be just as valuable. As one of my favorite anatomy YouTuber’s, Sam Webster, anatomy teacher at Swansea University Medical School, helps to show.
In some ways, given all the structures are still intact and clearly visible, it’s arguably even better.
One final point.
While a cadaver is great in helping students contextualize what they learn, it’s no short-cut. You’ll still need to use many other resources – books, atlas, flashcards etc – to truly memorize how it all fits together.
Not all medical schools ask students to dissect cadavers but it is a common requirement. Hopefully this article helps show some of the circumstances where it might not happen however.
To find out whether cadaver dissection could be part of your educational experience though? Definitely check your school’s medical curriculum or ask students in recent years for their experiences.
If you want more tips check out my article How to Prepare for Cadaver Lab.
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.