Commentary on “Anatomy Lesson”

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

We are in a first-year literature and medicine elective: 15 medical students, a family physician, and a psychologist. The psychologist is taking notes, partly for future discussion, partly because that is what psychologists do. It is December, and the students are embarked on their anatomy course. We go around the room, each student reading a couplet from Jack Coulehan’s poem “Anatomy Lesson.”

“Can you relate to the poem?” the facilitators ask. “What strikes you?”

The students talk about why the medical student narrator in the poem has named the cadaver “Ernest.” Someone says that earnest things are serious things. We talk about the ways in which dissection is serious business, how so much information and knowledge are riding on its mastery. A facilitator mentions a T.S. Eliot quote—“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”—and wonders aloud what kind of wisdom might be riding on dissection. Students consider what else they might be learning through the process of dissection. They speculate about whether the cadavers are indeed their first patients, and the consequent need to treat them with respect, dignity, and caring. We hear testimony about imagining the lives of the donors, witnessing their past suffering, and expressing gratitude for their sacrifice.

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