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Present Day Skeletal Variation: What Are We Missing?

5 Nov

Over at his weblog John Hawks has a quick write-up on a news article by Vox journalist Joseph Stromberg on the Forensic Anthropology Centre at Texas State University that makes a very important point.  It is worth quoting John hawks comments on the article in full here:

The skeletal material from the University of Tennessee forensic research unit constitutes the single most important collection for understanding variation within the skeletons of living Americans. Most collections of human skeletal material in museums and universities were acquired early in the twentieth century, or represent archaeological remains. Those are important collections, but do not represent today’s biology — people today are much heavier, live longer, suffer fewer ill-health episodes early in their lives, and often survive surgeries and skeletal implants when they reach advanced ages. To understand how human biology affects bone today, and to understand the variation in bones of living people, new collections are incredibly important. They are literally priceless, because collections of this kind cannot be bought. They result only from the generosity and interest of donors who leave their remains for this purpose.

– taken from John Hawks (2014, emphasis mine).

This is an incredibly point as osteoarchaeologists and human osteologists often studied the remains of individuals from archaeological contexts or pre-21st century skeletal series that will not represent the current state of human biology and population variation.  As a graduate of the University of Sheffield’s MSc program in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology I had the honour and opportunity to dissect a human cadaver as a part of the human anatomy module.  This is a fairly rare opportunity for students of osteoarchaeology in the United Kingdom, with only a small selection of universities offering dissection within their musculoskeletal focused human anatomy modules.  As such I will remain forever grateful to both the university and to the individuals who have donated their bodies in order for students to learn about past and present human populations, and the natural variation therein.

There is also a worry that the UK lacks skeletal reference collections of modern individuals of known age, sex and ancestry, which could have a particular impact on understanding the physiology of modern skeletal samples that are being excavated as development and construction necessitate removal of early modern cemeteries (Sayer 2010).

Relevant to the above is the fact that Vazquez et al. (2005) & Wilkinson (2007) have also discussed the problems in teaching gross anatomy in medical schools across Europe, highlighting the long-term decline of gross anatomical dissection across the medical board and the largely unfamiliar anatomical terms which have influenced the effective learning of gross anatomy.  The dissection classes that I participated in at the University of Sheffield took part in the Medical Teaching Unit, where our small cluster of osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologists were vastly outnumbered by the medical students.

There is an important link here as the bones that osteoarchaeologists and palaeoanthropologist study are the physical remains of once living individuals, but if we are to continue to study the natural and ongoing variation seen within the human species it is important that we have the resources available to understand not just the skeletal tissue but also the soft tissues as well.

Facilities such as the Forensic Anthropologist Research Centre, and the older University of Tennesse Anthropological Research Facility, are important examples of being able to study and research the effects of soft tissue decay in a relatively natural environment.  This is not just useful for forensic or archaeological studies but, again, also for understanding ongoing changes in human populations.  The article by Stromberg above ends on an important point that always bears consideration when studying human cadavers or skeletal tissue:

Still, there’s a danger to becoming too habituated to these bodies and forgetting what they represent. Ultimately, they’re a teaching tool, but they’re more than just a specimen. “You’ve got a job to do, but you’ve also got to remember that this body was once a living person,” Wescott says. “You’ve got to remember that there are family members and friends who love this person, and the body deserves your respect.” (Stromberg 2014, emphasis mine).

Further Information

  • Learn more about the important work being conducted at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University here.  If desired you can donate your body here.
  • Learn about the whole body donation program at the University of Sheffield here.

Bibliography

Hawks, J. 2014. A Visit to the World’s Largest Body Farm. John Hawks Weblog. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Sayer, D. 2010. Ethics and Burial Archaeology, Duckworth Debates in Archaeology. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd.

Stromberg, J. 2014. The Science of Human Decay: Inside the World’s Largest Body Farm. Vox. Accessed 4th November 2014. (Open Access).

Vazquez, R., Riesco, J. M. & Carretero, J. 2005. Reflections and Challenges in the Teaching of Human Anatomy at the Beginning of the 21st Century. European Journal of Anatomy9 (2): 111-115. (Open Access).

Wilkinson, A. T. 2007. Considerations in Students’ Learning of Anatomical Terminology. European Journal of Anatomy. 11 (s1): 89-93. (Open Access).

Body Worlds Vital Exhibition Comes To Life

11 May

Just a quick post here to highlight an exhibition that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

The International Centre for Life, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, is playing host to the Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds Vital exhibition from the 17th of May to the 2nd of November 2014.  This  promises to be an interesting opportunity for the public to see first hand the exhibition of human bodies and associated prosected organs and tissues, and a chance to learn about the value of human anatomy and physiology.  As well as the main exhibition there will also be numerous special events taking place throughout the seven month showing.  This includes the opportunity to attend public lectures on the ethics of displaying dead individuals, the relationship between art and the dead (featuring one Paul Koudounaris) and the chance to learn how to draw the human body, amongst other topics as yet to be disclosed.

body-worlds-vital---the-exhibition-of-real-human-bodies-body-worlds-vital-life-science-centre-800x360

Exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. The display has a number of human bodies and prosected organs and tissues on show, often promoting a healthy lifestyle message. A number of the bodies are placed into classical poses from the Renascence era.  Image credit: Centre for Life.

The Body Worlds organisation has been around for a while now and is currently running a number of exhibitions around the world, although it has not been without its criticisms (see below).  The International Centre for Life itself is a pretty unique complex of buildings (a science village) which plays a major focus in funding and researching the life sciences in the heart of Newcastle, as well providing a family friendly interactive museum at the Centre for Life itself.

Ethics

The bioarchaeology researcher Jess Beck, over at Bone Broke, has a particularly good blog entry detailing the varied views on the ethics of displaying human remains for the public and her post mentions specific criticisms of a previous incarnation of Body Worlds.  This has focused, in the past, on the actual providence of the bodies of the individuals on display and of the actual feasibility of the anatomical positions of the bodies themselves (Moore & Brown 2004, see this 2006 NPR article for further details).  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition has made explicit announcements stating that each and every body or organ on display has been donated specifically for the Body Worlds Vital exhibition with the blessing of the person when they were alive.  The Body Worlds Vital exhibition, housed at the Life Science Centre, has been thoroughly vetted by the Human Tissue Authority and the exhibition approved (the report can be read here).

The Exhibition

I have been twice now to view the exhibition, and I really think that it pays to visit these types of exhibitions a few times.  The first time I visited by myself, allowing plenty of time to become acquainted with the outlay and display of the human bodies.  The second time I went with a few friends of mine and experienced a different kind of interaction with the displays.  Each time I went I saw a mixed age audience with both women and men of all stripes taking in the show.  Most importantly I saw enthused children looking at the bodies, asking their parents what each part of the body does and why, sometimes asking pretty tough and interesting questions (‘how many red blood cells are there in the body?’).  This was fantastic to see and especially parents taking their time to explain the human body, the differences as the body ages and the anatomical differences between the sexes, to their children.

The exhibition layout seemed a bit all  over, with no main overarching theme, I had expected a lifespan approach with the bodies displayed in various approaches as you went along but instead they were placed along the edge of the exhibition length punctuated by prosected tissues.  Each little area often a health point (obesity, cancer, dementia and over-drinking to name but a few) highlighted with a diseased and non-diseased specimen on show.  Personally it was a bit too black and white moral wise, no care giving was mentioned.  The terminology sometimes changed from the common name (collar bone) to the medical (sub-clavian  artery), which may confuse visitors as to the medical terms used- it would have made more sense to stick to one approach and to explain it to the viewer what precise terms used meant.

The bodies themselves were spell-binding although all lacked adipose fat, which had been removed as a part of the plastination process.  This made me curious as it highlighted ‘perfect’ bodies, whereas in real life most people have, and need, an amount of body fat for survival.  Furthermore the individuals are not named, as a matter of course, as the individuals had only died within the past few decades.  But it did bring up an interesting discussion point with my friend Will in the pub afterwards.  Archaeology often deals with the nameless dead, whereas this actively made the bodies anonymous, to represent a human ‘individual’ and not a person with a family or a social package.  A part of me still can’t help but wonder what their lives were like, who did they love and what did they do with their lives.  The posing of the fleshed bodies was certainly unique and allowed for an in-depth look into the musculature and nervous systems of several individuals.

Overall I really felt that the public had the opportunity and chance to look at the human body in all of its wonder.  The body was not hiding in morgues, research rooms or funeral homes, it was on display for all to admire and learn from.  Visit, you will not be disappointed.

Preserving Bodies

Whilst this is just a quick post, I would like to highlight that the plastination technique that Gunther von Hagens uses is but one method of preservation for cadaveric material.

The Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, at the University of Dundee in Scotland, currently uses a fascinating technique called the Thiel Cadaver Facility to preserve human cadavers for use in anatomical and forensic laboratory sessions.  This soft-fix method preserves the body’s tissues and ensures a life-like quality of flexibility which enables tissues such as muscles and the skin to be flexed fully during teaching and dissections sessions.  The Thiel process, although long, also helps to retain the original hues of the body as opposed to the usual formaldehyde method, which usually leaves bodies and tissues looking pale and anaemic.

Further Information

  • A detailed Centre for Life FAQ on the Body Worlds Vital exhibition can be found here.
  • Learn about the history and the aims of the science village The International Centre for Life here.
  • Jess Beck’s Bone Broke entry on the ethics of displaying human remains can be found here.  Particularly of interest is the double standard of criticism that exists in the ethics between museum and academic institutions displaying of human remains compared to the ‘overtly commercial nature’ of the Body Worlds style of exhibition of human remains.  It is a thoughtful point that Beck raises in her blog entry.
  • Visit Empire de la Mort, the website of artist, historian and photographer Paul Koudounaris.
  • Learn about Gunther von Hagens intriguing method of plastination that he uses on both human and animal cadavers.
  • Learn about the Thiel cadaver technique here or here, which is currently being pioneered in the UK at the University of Dundee.

Bibliography

Moore, M. C. & Brown, C. M. 2004. Gunther Von Hagens and Body Worlds Part 1: The Anatomist as Prosektor and Proplastiker. The Anatomical Record Part B: The New Anatomist. 267B (1): 8-14. (Open Access).

What Not To Do In A Morgue: A Lesson For The Archaeologist?

4 Feb

The fantastic Chirurgeon’s  Apprentice Facebook page has highlighted this rather dark but entertaining article by Simon Winchester on his experience of working in a morgue for a summer in the early 1960’s.  In it Simon explains the many lessons he learned when dealing first hand with cadavers of the recently dead, but he also highlights one big mistake he made with a particular gentleman.

Winchester explains:

All this may have been a mistake of judgment. It was not, however, the Mistake. That came a month into my employment when a couple of attendants wheeled into the mortuary the lifeless and, except for his bare feet, rather well-dressed corpse of an elderly, white-haired man. By this time such a delivery was quite routine: I had already had many similar encounters with the lately dead. But this fellow was different, mainly because he had a large tag tied around his big toe. On it was written a question mark and in large letters the word LEUKEMIA.

I was alone in the building at the time of the delivery, and I wasn’t immediately sure what to do. But a bit of riffling through Mr. Utton’s desk eventually fetched up a tattered old manual describing what to do in the event of discovering gunshot wounds, for example, or upon finding an eruption of angry-looking and possibly infection-laden spots on a corpse. It offered me a single line of advice on leukemia: “Remove femur,” it said, “and send it for examination by the laboratory.” (Winchester 2014).

Duly having removed one of the gentleman’s femora for testing and then prepared and dressed the cadaver, Winchester waited for the undertaker to come and take the man away.  However the undertaker was not impressed by the rather floppy state of one of the man’s thighs and told Winchester to put something inside it to stabilize it whilst he went away for dinner.  Unfortunately Winchester chose a zinc metal rod to replace the removed femur, unaware that the individual in question was due to be cremated, not buried, the next day.

Morgue1

A familiar scene from morgues across the land. Tags were often kept on the toes of bodies to identify them and highlight any pathology in the body (Image credit: Bettmann/CORBIS, from here).

Fortunately a good dose of black humour from the family saved any law suits appearing, but the article did make me think about the implications for this in archaeological record.  For example for a person to practice a trade they must first learn and train, often undergoing an apprenticeship under a master or a tradesman.  Mistakes are bound to made in any field of trade, particularly where high technical skill is needed to carry out a procedure.  I wonder if sometimes, especially in the field of prehistoric mortuary archaeology, some things are held up as examples of ritual activities where there has perhaps been a simple mistake that has been covered up or not uncovered, or a result of the taphonomy processes at play.

It also reminded me of a particularly fine biography by Joel F. Harrington of a 16th century Nuremberg executioner that I read late last year.  Meister Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a remarkable man, known principally as a highly skilled executioner who attained a particularly high rank in the famous city.  Contrary to his official position Schmidt also became a well-respected healer in his later life.  He carried out his job, indeed his life, with the up-most respect for the sanctity of the position that his father passed down to him, even though he was largely excluded from society because of his job during the majority of his life.  Amazingly the intimate details (names, crimes and last moments) of the many individuals that he dispatched, and the execution methods that were used, were all kept in a personally sparse diary that Schmidt himself wrote.

Schmidt executing

The only reliable picture of Franz Schmidt in action, seen here executing Hans Froschel on the 18th of May in 1591. A brutal but quick death by the sword, a method that required a quick and a steady arm stroke to dispatch the victim. It could easily go wrong if the stroke was not powerful enough to slice and separate the head from the body. (Image credit: Staatsarchiv Nürnberg here).

Harrington makes the point that the young executioner, during the process of learning his trade from his father, likely used butchered animals and stray dogs to practice the various execution methods that were used during this period.  Whilst the book is full of grisly details (being broken on the wheel must have been hell for one), Harrington (2013) puts Schmidt, his life and work, into a broader German and European political framework that effectively illuminates the value that the executioner played in the keeping of law and order in the 16th century.

Being an executioner also often took a physical and mental strain as it was a demanding office to hold, having to both torture and execute criminals but also having to take part in the often elaborate processions of walking the criminal (Harrington 2013).  Further to this there was always the constant reminder that executioners who were accused of a botched torture session or execution could find themselves being penalized or outcast, or even executed, much like the doctors of the day who were accused of failing a patient (Harrington 2013).  I also recommend Winder’s (2011) informal free for all journey around Germany, which also wonderfully places the country in a historical context and is well worth a read alone for some pretty interesting historical hangouts.

Further Information

  • The article, by Simon Winchester, can be found here.
  • An extract of Meister Franz Schmidt’s diary and of a talk by Harrington can be read here.
  • Head to medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris’s enthralling site The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice to learn all about surgery in the early modern period.
  • For all your mortuary archaeology needs head to Bones Don’t Lie, a regularly updated blog by Katy Meyers who is a PhD candidate in mortuary anthropology at Michigan State University.

Bibliography

Harrington, J. F. 2013. The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent 16th Century. London: Picador.

Winder, S. 2011. Germania: A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern. London: Picador.

Questions to Remember when Considering a Human Osteology Postgraduate Course

8 Jan

This post is a follow-up the now-updated Human Osteology Postgraduate Courses In The UK post that I produced last year (which is kept up to date, so please leave a comment below or email me if you know of any courses that should be added).  Whereas that post dealt with the cold hard facts of which universities in the UK offer human osteology courses this post will deal with you, the student.  The post is aimed at those who are interested in pursing a master’s degree in human osteology, either as a Masters of Science or a Masters of Art, as it is at this level that the course goes into the depth of detail needed to either go into research or into commercial archaeology.  I believe that it is vital that you know the course that you want to go on but that you also know the reputation of the department, what the course offered entails and what your prospects are job-wise after you have completed the course.  As this post is aimed at universities within the UK bare in mind that travel distances are fairly minimal compared to continental Europe or elsewhere, however the pound is a fairly strong currency and, as such, it can be expensive to live here.

So without further ado I present here a quick list of thoughts* to think about before you apply for a course in human osteology.  Please bare in mind that although this post has been produced with the UK in mind it can, or could, be applicable for any other country where the student is considering applying for a master’s degree in human osteology.

skull-saxon

1) Think Carefully Before Committing

Pursing a masters course in human osteology is not a course to be taken lightly as it will incur a significant financial commitment, both for the course itself and for the accommodation and living costs whilst studying for the degree.  It pays to think carefully about your interest in a specific specialist course in archaeology and whether you could make a career from it or not, therefore it is worth seeking advice out whilst at the undergraduate stage.  Further to this it is wise to remember that many universities will want to see a 2.1 Upper Second Class degree attained at the undergraduate level whilst some courses do preferably ask for 1st class degrees before being considered for a Master’s program.

However, stating that, experience and knowledge can count for an awful lot, especially demonstrable knowledge and experience (i.e. volunteering or working for an archaeological unit).  By taking the time and effort to gain excavation and post-excavation experience (especially bone processing) it will show determination and a willing effort to learn on your behalf.  A final piece of advice for this part is to be honest with yourself regarding what your options are.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are available as a full-time course only, although a select few have been known to offer them as part-time courses.  It is always worth asking the course director for further information.

2) Know The Courses On Offer

It always pays to be informed of archaeology departments that offer human osteology as a taught or research Master’s.  There will be certain criteria which will impose limits on the options of courses available to you, whether they are imposed by outside factors or factors of your own choosing.  Necessarily the list will often include financial cost, travel times and extent of knowledge of academic universities.  I would heavily advise that you spend time reading through departmental literature to get a feeling for each academic course under consideration, and to make a note of the facilities that each department has.  A great way for feeling what the strengths of a department are is by looking at past research topics (in the form of dissertations) and by looking carefully at the modular choices on offer.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, isolate what you most want out of such a degree, what your research interests are and what department can best serve you.  Different courses have different focuses, for example the University of Durham’s MSc in Palaeopathology course specifically focuses on trauma and pathology in the human skeleton, whilst the University of Exeter’s MSc in Bioarchaeology course focuses on a range of topics in biological archaeology, including plant and animal remains.

Remember to also consider the course director and associated teaching staff research interests as they may correlate with yours, which would be beneficial.  Pertinent questions to consider are:

Does the department have the technical expertise or the right equipment on hand or on site?

Does the department have a fully kitted out human osteology lab or will you be cramped for space?

Would you have access to the human osteology lab at all hours or only during week days?

What modules does the course offer and what modules are core or free selective choices?

What scholarships or funds are available for you to apply for?

When this has been considered I would email the course director with a few basic questions pertaining to how successful the course is, success rate of employment afterwards, and by directly asking what the strengths of the course are.  You will need to be careful in keeping the email concise, polite and straight-forward as course directors are usually busy people!  Further to this I heavily advise emailing a current student of the course or a PhD research student, politely asking questions directly on what their views are of the masters course and of the department as a whole.  This will bring you a generally much more honest answer from someone who is not tied down to the department directly.  You can also get in touch with people from the British Archaeological Jobs and Resources group at their forums or the Facebook group and as k the great British archaeological hive mind for advice and experience.

3) Attend Open Days

Be aware that when emailing staff members and research students it may take some time for a response, be patient as they are often very busy people dealing with a wide range of pressures and deadlines.  Once you have narrowed down the course wish list I would advise attending a departmental open day to see for yourself what the atmosphere is like.  Are the staff friendly?  Ask the staff questions and do not be afraid to mention your interests and any considerations you are having.  If you can attend open days try to see each university that interests you, and even some that don’t quite offer the course you want but offer interesting alternatives.  You never know what actually attending a university open day will quite be like, and it could lead you down a research alley or area of interest that you had not considered before.

4) Decision Time

Having isolated the university courses of interest, emailed course directors and current student,s and having toured various university departments and campuses, you are now in a good position to be able to select at human osteology course that you want to pursue.  This is the period where you get to sell yourself to the department by highlighting how attractive you are as a future student for their department.  Also be aware that you are paying money to attend a course and to receive tuition.  The majority of human osteology courses in the UK are taught at internationally recognised institutions, some of which have set the bar for how the courses should be taught.  Remember however that times change, get views now on what is happening in the department, what changes are expected to come and what resources will be available for the foreseeable future.

It also pays to remember that it does not have to one university specifically, pick a range of 3 or 4 ideal universities that offer courses that you are interested, maybe even pick 3 different ones that offer different aspects of the topic that the others do not.  I personally picked the University of Sheffield for my choice of human osteology courses specifically because it was the only program that offered human dissection in a separate human anatomy module, whilst also offering 3 modules on human osteology and biological anthropology.  However I also liked the look of the University of Exeter’s bioarchaeology course because it offered modules in palaeobotany and zooarchaeology (which I thought could have been beneficial on the job market), whilst still offering the chance to specialise in human osteology.

5) Application Time

It is easy to get carried away with the personal statement during the application process and, in truth, it is not really a personal statement at all.  Be concise and professional, try not mention the course director too much (I cringe when I recall my personal statement!), and be confident to mention your previous experience but also your future research ideas and academic strengths.  If you can add something that will stand out amongst the competition then do it.  It is worth mentioning here that it is probably best to apply for more than one course, even if you already have a place at another university.  Be aware that you may receive a conditional or a none-conditional offer, conditional offers are normally given to those students that have yet to finish their undergraduate degrees.  Remember that if you are dead set on pursuing a masters in human osteology and have yet to finish your undergraduate degree aim for a 2.1 or a 1st.  However try not to pressure yourself too much as you can always apply at a later date, when you have more experience.  Completing a masters now is no shortcut to a job and, in fact, in archaeology it is becoming almost the norm for many graduate to go on to complete a masters in an archaeological topic before working in the field.

Note

*This is just a quickly compiled guide to how to approach the best choice masters based on what I went through, feel free to mix it up!

Further Information

  • My blog entry on all known human osteology MSc and MA courses and short courses available in the UK.  Please contact me at thesebonesofmine at hotmail.com if you would like a course added to the list.

Andreas Vesalius’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’

5 Apr

I still remember seeing the vivid woodcuts of the human body looming out of the school history textbook for the first time, as clear as the sunlight that entered that dark room.  The course title was ‘Medicine through Time’, a fascinating ramble through man’s attempts at healing the body that started at the Upper Palaeolithic and ended at the beginning of the NHS and modern medicine.

The figures that loomed out were of course from Andreas Vesalius’s (1514-1564) anatomical book, ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libre Septem‘ (1543), an illustrated manual of the human body in 7 books.  Produced at a time of great learning, during the flourishing of the Renaissance, the books depicted the human body in vivid anatomical detail.  Remarkably Vesalius published the first edition of the book at the age of 30, taking great pains to present the illustrations as accurately as possible.  By using woodcuts throughout the text, with the odd use of intaglio (engraved copper plates), Vesalius cultivated great artists to help detail his anatomical and dissection findings.  He had the text printed by Joannis Oporini  in Basel, Switzerland, who was a printer of foremost talent in 16th century Europe.

But where did Vesalius, as a anatomist and dissector, fit into anatomical history?  Vesalius was born in Brussels, Belgium (then the Hapsburg Netherlands), in 1514 to a family of physicians and, under the directions of Jacques Dubois and Jean Fernel, studied anatomy and the theories of Galen at the University of Paris in 1533.  He was forced to move his anatomical studies to Leuven, Netherlands, at the outbreak of war between the Holy Roman Empire and France in 1536,  However he shortly moved to Padua, Italy, to complete his doctorate and took up the chair of surgery and anatomy after its completion.  It is during this time that he conducted dissections on cadavers as a regular part of his student lessons as a primary learning tool, and promoted the use of directly observed descriptions during the dissections.

This was a challenge to the established orthodoxy of Galen‘s (AD 126- 200) anatomical legacy.  Galen studied the Hippocratic theory of pathology, and heavily promoted the theory of the 4 bodily humors and the idea of human temperaments.  In particular Galen advanced the knowledge of human anatomy in many areas, including describing muscle tones and the functions of agonists and antagonists in the musculo-skeletal system, alongside major progressions in the understanding of circulatory, respiratory and nervous systems.  Although Galen’s medical corpus was accepted as largely fact, his anatomical dissections were carried out on Barbary apes and pigs, as Imperial Rome in the 2nd century AD prohibited human cadaver dissection.

One of the 'muscle men', displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (source).

One of the ‘muscle men’, displaying the superficial anatomy of the major muscles in the anterior view of the human body (Source: University of Glasgow).

This led to several major inaccuracies in the work of Galen and in the understanding of the biology of the human body, and it wasn’t until Vesalius that certain views were corrected and amalgamated into Galen’s legacy.  This included a number of corrections from Galen’s original works, such as recognising that the human jawbone (mandible) is one bone and not two, that women do not lack a rib compared to males (taken from the biblical idea), and that the interventricular septum of the heart is not porous as Galen advocated, alongside a plethora of other insights.

This largely occurred because Vesalius advocated active learning during dissection of human cadavers (themselves often executed prisoners).  Importantly it should be noted that Vesalius work built upon work throughout the intervening centuries, particularly in the view of contemporary Renaissance artists and anatomists.  His was not the first body of work focusing on the intricacies of the human body during this period, but it was one of the most detailed and finely executed, leading it to become an instant classic in his own lifetime.  Although he improved Galen’s theory of circulation, it wasn’t until the English doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) accurately described the systematic circulation and properties of blood (1628).

The University of Toronto has recently acquired a previously unknown and privately held 2nd edition copy of ‘De Human Corporis Fabrica’, and it is making the book accessible for researchers to study the text itself at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.  Remarkably the unknown edition includes annotations likely made by Vesalius himself, notes where he has corrected the printed text or made notes regarding what to include in the next printed edition of the book, which unfortunately was never printed.  This typifies the character and nature of Vesalius as a dissector and researcher, but it also helps highlight the nature of science itself, how through the investigation of previous studies can inform future work and rectify mistakes or misunderstandings.  In particular is also raises the subject and value of comparative anatomy between species, of homology, of the similarities and differences between mammals.

Perhaps gruesomely, a human skin bound edition of the book survives and currently resides at Brown University.  The practice of human skin binding is known as ‘Anthropodermic Bibliopegy’ and, as Wikipedia points out, dates back till at least the 17th century.

Human Osteology Courses in the UK

22 Jan

This is something I should have done a while ago.  Regardless, whilst I was doing some light research for another article I made a quick list of every course in the UK that offers human osteology as a taught masters (either as an MA – a Masters of Arts or as an MSc – Masters of Science) or offer a distinctive human osteology module or component within a taught masters degree.  England is well represented within the universities highlighted, Scotland only comes in with two entries whilst Wales and Northern Ireland, as far as I know, offer no distinctive osteological courses at the Masters level.  Further to this the reader should be aware that some universities, such as the University of Leicester, offer commercial or research centers for human and animal osteology yet run no postgraduate courses that provide the training in the methods of osteoarchaeology.  Thus they are excluded from this list.

This information is correct as of the 8 January 2014, but please expect at least some of the information to change.  I think we could likely see a raise in the tuition fees for MSc and MA courses within the next few years, as a direct knock on effect of the upping of undergraduate fees.  It should be noted here that the education system in the UK is well-regarded, and it’s educational institutions are often in the top 10% in world league tables; however it can be very expensive to study here, especially so in the consideration of prospective international students.  Please also take note of the cost of renting (especially in the south east of the country) and the high cost of daily living.  The list is not an exhaustive attempt and I am happy to add any further information or to correct any entries.

As well as the list below, the British Association for Biological Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology also have links to human osteology and bioarchaeology courses in the UK – check it out here.

skull-saxon

A example of an archaeological skull. Image credit: source.

MA/MSC Degrees in England

Bournemouth University:

University of Bradford:

University of Cambridge:

  • MPhil Human Evolution (amazingly there are 18,000 skeletons in the Duckworth Collection).

Cranfield University:

Liverpool John Moores University:

UCLAN:

University College London:

University of Durham:

  • MSc Palaeopathology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).
  • MSc Evolutionary Anthropology (Fees available on request, expect UK/EU £5000 and International £14,000).

University of Exeter:

Universities of Hull and York Medical School:

  • MSc Human Evolution (A very interesting course, combining dissection and evolutionary anatomy) (UK/EU £4620 and International £16,540).

University of Liverpool:

University of Manchester:

  • MSc Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology (course under review).

University of Oxford:

University of Sheffield:

University of Southampton:

University of York:

MA/MSc Degrees in Scotland

University of Dundee:

University of Edinburgh:

Please be aware of changing program fees, as some of the above information has come from the 2012/2013 course fees, and these can, and are likely, to change during the next academic year.  In conjunction with the above, a number of universities also run short courses.

The following universities offer short courses in human osteology, osteology, forensics or zooarchaeology.

Short Courses in England

Bournemouth University:

Cranfield University:

Luton Museum

Oxford Brookes University:

University of Bradford:

  • On occasion run a palaeopathology course, please check the university website for details.

University of Sheffield:

I am surprised there are not more short courses in the UK.  If you find any in the UK please feel free to drop a comment below!

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A University of Hull and Sheffield joint excavation at Brodsworth carried out in 2008 helped to uncover and define a Medieval cemetery. Image credit: University of Hull.

Note: A final note to prospective students, I would strongly advise researching your degree by visiting the universities own webpages, finding out about the course specifics and the module content.  I would also always advise to try and contact a past student and to gain their views on the course they have attended.  They will often offer frank advice and information, something that can be hard to find on a university webpage.  Also be aware of the high cost of UK tertiary education as prices have been raised considerably in the past few years and are likely to rise again.

Furthermore if you know of any other human osteology Masters or short courses in the UK please comment below or send me an email and I will add it to the list here.

Further Information

Anatomy of Human Dissection: An Introspection

27 Sep

It was to be the last time that we saw his body on the table.  In the intervening weeks we had come to know his features with intimacy and respect.   Outside the wind had turned fierce, whilst the clouds, a deep shade of grey and pregnant with snow, streamed across the sky as winter proper closed in.  The Medical Teaching Unit had largely emptied over the past week, the last teaching week before the Christmas break.  Only the aspiring human osteologists and palaeoanthropologists now remained and filled the cavernous light blue coloured room.  With glistening scalpels and silver probes, the last examination of our beloved participant took place.  Pairs of nervous eyes and trembling hands ran through what we had been taught.   We touched and felt the cold body as we reeled off the list drilled into us by the 12 weeks of dissection classes.  Each muscle,  its attachment; insertion; action; nerve; blood supply; ligaments and tendons, were ticked off, one by one.  Each major actor in the human musculoskeletal system was to be identified and admired.  Just as in field archaeology, as in the body.  There are layers, superficial and deep, to be uncovered and appreciated, and then to be reflected back as we investigated further.

It had taken some getting used to at first, the chemical smell and the sights of the MTU.  The individuals who had donated their bodies were to be found wrapped up on their metallic trays, waiting with eternal patience in the centre of the room.  I couldn’t help but notice the sad fact of the bodies different lengths, from adult to child.  It was a hive of activity, bristling with groups of medical students crowding around different individuals on their cold slabs.  The medical students commandeered the central space every week, as they deconstructed the body to heal it.  Tucked away in the side of the main room, we learnt about the intricacies of the fleshed body; how movement is dictated by flexion and extension of passive and active striated skeletal muscle groups.  Each week we would start with a new aspect on our adopted individual and help uncover that week’s muscle group.

The first exam had been taken some 5 weeks before, and we now stared at the second, a mere day or two away.  Our focus this time was the lower half of the body, from the pelvis down to the toes.  The almost fan-like gluteal muscles provided a staunch launching pad from which to run down the thighs, past tensor fascia latae and the iliotibial band on the lateral aspect, to curve with the sartorius on the anterior aspect, as we reached and admired the complexity of the knee joint.  As we uncovered and cleaned each section free of adipose fat, we unveiled the vastus, adductors and hamstring muscle groups.  Whilst running a discussion on what constituted the delicate femoral triangle, I couldn’t help but think of my own numerous surgeries.  Of the many times I have had a scalpel part my skin on the lateral aspect of my thighs.  That scar tissue, on my body as a permanent fixation, serves as a reminder that I too have been laid on a table, ready to be examined and explored; that ultimately, there is no difference between the living and the dead- it is just a different state of being, of matter in the universe.

We had already uncovered the startlingly array and complexicity of the upper body in previous dissection sessions.  The human body, like any living creature, is a marvelous machine developed over millions of years of evolution.  Nothing is perfect however.  Homologies from a common ancestor, ‘the same organ in different animals under every variety of form and function’, are to be found throughout the animal kingdom, and the human as a part of this, has many.  They are well documented, and I shan’t digress here.  However, it is important to note the expected variation within species and between species.  The detailed analysis of fossil hominids depends on this fundamental approach, even as new batteries of investigations are used.

And now, the week before Christmas, the main hall stood empty.  No bodies lay on their metallic tables, and there was no crowd of bustling medical students hunched over, investigating and desiccating the minutiae of life.  It was as if even the bodies had gone home for the bleak mid-winter break.  As we finished testing each other on the soleus or the gastrocnemius, we carefully de-bladed the scalpels, washed all of the tools, and placed them back inside our student dissection kits for the last time.  We silently thanked the individual’s generous bodily donation, and placed the plain cloth over the body and carefully tucked it in.  As I made my way to a nearby exit, my fellow colleagues were already outside breathing the fresh cold winter air.  As I opened the exit door I was accompanied by a lonely radio playing a mournful 1950s song.  Knowing that I would not be back in this place again, I closed it and bid the room a fond farewell.

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The University of Sheffield MSc Human Osteology program is the only UK based University that offers the teaching and education of human musculoskeletal anatomy by first hand dissection.  Other UK Universities offering Osteological Masters degrees only teach musculoskeletal anatomy in the lecture theatre.  I firmly believe that my education was enhanced by this opportunity.  At all times the people who donated their bodies to the Medical Teaching Unit were respected and treated with dignity.  The staff displayed professionalism and esteem, and encouraged us all to smile and to learn about the wonders of the human body.

Related and Further Information:

  • The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has an interesting article on vivisection in Early Modern England, and the medical advances and reactions to this method of dissection.
  •  An article in the Lancet by Lindsey Fitzharris (2012: 108-109), author of the above blog, discusses the effects of human dissection on early modern doctors and today’s medical practitioners .  
  • Guardian article citing the difficulties of obtaining skeletons for academic study, and the difficult process of donating bodies for medical and clinical science, with quotes from Dr Tim Thompson and Dr Piers D. Mitchell
  • At the Museum of London, there is a current exhibition on ‘Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men‘ (until April 2013) detailing the excavation of 262 burials from Royal London Hospital with extensive evidence of dissection, along with faunal remains.  The exhibition “reveals the intimate relationship between surgeons pushing forward anatomical study and the bodysnatchers who supplied them; and the shadowy practices prompted by a growing demand for corpses” (MoL 2013).