Five Things You Really Ought to Know Before Starting Gross Anatomy


Thoughts of medical school and gross anatomy inherently go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, the idea of dissecting another human being breeds a lot of anxiety for the incoming medical student.  I am sure there are a billion whimsically written posts on the internet titled “my first day in gross anatomy” and “the great gift of giving a cadaver”. This site isn’t about that, it is about giving you the information you need to succeed. Let’s do it!

1. Cutting into dead people is weird… but you’ll get over it

As my lab partners and I stood around our body pondering what the hell we had gotten ourselves into it became time to make the first cut. It’s an odd feeling when you begin to dissect a human. You know what really got to me though? How quickly we became desensitized to what we were doing. Within days we were slicing away and chatting in up without second thought. Mind you, we always kept it respectful but it is also important to remember that these people willingly gave their bodies to us to learn with. Dive in and do your best not to get creeped out, that’s what everyone (including the cadaver) is there for!

2. It will have very little bearing on the rest of your career

surgeon gross anatomy

Let’s face it, most docs don’t need an intimate understanding of anatomy to do their jobs well. When is the last time you think an internist needed to know the exact course of the internal pudenal artery? Gross anatomy, like most of medical school, is full of BS minutia that has little bearing on everyday practice. Even as a budding surgeon I only use a scant amount of what we learned in gross anatomy. So what’s the point? The best I can come up with is if you learn the minutia then the basics will seem easy. But really, I don’t see the point. History? To make medical students shudder? I think I feel a post coming on why most of the medical school curriculum is ridiculous coming up…

3. Your atlas is your friend

I did shitty on my first several anatomy quizzes. Then I learned the secret to performing well on anatomy. Go in, get the dissection done to make your professors happy and then go study somewhere else. Trying to study from our actual dissections was an exercise in futility.

Where is the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve?

Oh, Hulk Hands Henry ripped that out, he thought it was a piece of fat.

The best advice I can give is to learn what things SHOULD look like from an atlas like Rohen’s Color Atlas of Anatomy: A Photographic Study of the Human Body. This book is the shit. It provides detailed photographs of beautifully pro-sected* cadavers allowing you to actually LEARN the anatomy. THEN studying your own dissections becomes much easier. Once I adapted this technique my anatomy grades skyrocketed!

 4. Doing poorly is not the end of your medical school career

There is a huge emphasis placed on gross anatomy by medical schools and medical students. Inevitably you or one of your close friends will struggle through. Understandably this causes more than a bit of anxiety.

Oh no Survivor! If I could barely pass anatomy how ever will I succeed in the rest of medical school? I am destined to become a primary care provider in central North Dakota!

Look, it surely isn’t a good thing to struggle through this course but it is not the end of the world either. There is a lot going against you. You are a brand new medical student adjusting to all that is med school and you have likely never done anything remotely like this before. Relax, take a chill pill, have a beer. Once you get into your groove and into the typical chew and spew med school classes you will be fine!

5. Just because you didn’t LOVE gross anatomy doesn’t mean you can’t become a surgeon

Case in point, this guy! I didn’t hate gross anatomy but I didn’t love it either. For me, hours of tediously picking through fat on a slowly drying cadaver really isn’t my cup of tea. It also is nothing like actual surgery. If your local general surgeon is beginning his cholecystectomies by first removing the skin from the entire body, please call the police!

Gross anatomy is a right of passage that we all must endure but it doesn’t have to be the behemoth that people make it out to be. This post probably didn’t answer all of your questions about gross anatomy but I wanted to hit some of the areas that aren’t talked about as often. If you have further questions please ask them below.

*Pro-sected just means that someone who actually knows what the fuck they are doing dissected the cadaver, some medical schools and many other professional schools actually hire people to do this. This is a better option in my opinion, it saves the medical student valuable time and the dissections actually come out appearing as they should.


Five Things You Really Ought to Know Before Starting Gross Anatomy — 12 Comments

  1. Thanks for keeping it real, Survivor. I read somewhere that it’s good to wear two gloves or else your hands are going to smell like formaldehyde all day.

    • Double gloving is a matter of preference. I don’t think many people in my class did. You really A) don’t notice a smell as long as you wash your hands thoroughly and B) get used to any slight smell there may be. Two pairs of standard exam gloves like you use in gross are going to make your hands sweaty and really bulky. Now in the OR I would suggest you all double glove, these gloves are nice and thin and you can do so comfortably.

  2. How important is Anatomy to medical school and my future as a physician? Extremely!
    Do most physicians do physical exams? Do most physicians look at CXRs? Do most physicians look at MRIs, and CTs at some point? Is that point of maximal impulse displaced? My patient complains of pain in the right lower quadrant, what was down there again? What do you mean I shouldn’t do a lumbar puncture, who cares about uncal herniation? (You can’t make a fist? Wait I will get a real physician who can tell us the nerve that is involved! Has anyone seen Dr. Google?)
    Don’t think about anatomy as just an obstacle in your way to completing your first year of medical school! Think of anatomy as a major tool in your tool box. This tool is so critical and can save you hours of frustration when you are trying to palpate this or review a film on that. If you are ignorant to the use of this tool, it will always just seem as though it is an obstacle.
    The base of a pyramid is always the most important part. The stronger the base, the easier it is to build successive layers. As you go through your medical carrier keep referring back to the strong base as something to build layers upon!

    Anatomy, in todays education is not simply dissection

  3. Anatomy is great, but an embalmed cadaver isn’t a very good way to learn it, in my opinion. I’m a liver and kidney transplant surgeon, now about 30 years out from medical school. This is a field with probably more exposure to detailed abdominal (and to some extent thoracic) anatomy than any other surgical discipline. I see two main problems with traditional cadaver-oriented med school gross anatomy:

    1. Living tissue looks *nothing* like embalmed tissue. I remember trying to find some obscure subcutaneous nerves at the start of my anatomy class, and thinking “no way, these guys are just making this shit up”. When I first scrubbed on major surgery for the first time, I was floored at the extraordinary level of detail that is readily visible.
    2. As a new med student, you really don’t know anything about how the body works in health or disease, so the whole thing becomes an exercise in brute force memorization. It is about as interesting as memorizing a page from a telephone directory, and is forgotten almost immediately.

    So really, even though you will transiently learn a huge amount of minutiae as a med student, all that really matters (beyond getting adequate grades) is that you really reliably know all the basics. If you become a surgical specialist, the time you learn all the details you actually need will be over the course of your residency.

  4. ^_^ I’m a first year medical student in Malaysia. We’ve started learning about nerves, our course started approximately a month ago. Just now in the morning, it was the first time we studied a cadaver. I didn’t believe it was a real one. Eventually, yeah it was true.. I am happy about my new experience which led me to some common questions about cadaver,, And I came across this website along the others opened in other tabs. thank you for the information doctor. You Just added to my knowledge. Have a great life. :) Regards, Gaayathri

  5. What a cocky & flippant write-up, speaking more about the brash and irreverant p.o.v. of this individual. A bit crass, too. Form your own opinion, folks.

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