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The Complete Guide To Medical School Dissection

The Complete Guide To Medical School Dissection

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Full-body dissection is widely regarded as the best way to learn anatomy at medical school.

No matter how accurate, realistic or life-like anatomy models are, they’re never going to be able to replicate actually exploring the genuine anatomy of a human body.

In this complete guide to medical school dissection, I’m going to explore everything from which medical schools offer it, to what it’s like to actually dissect a cadaver, to why some people find it makes them feel hungry!

Which Medical Schools Do Full Body Dissection?

Not every medical school in the UK offers full-body dissection.

Some teach students anatomy only using plasticated models, some only use prosection, some use dissection and some use a mixture of all three methods.

The method a medical school uses to teach students anatomy can have a big impact on whether you might want to study there or not.

For example, if your dream is to become a surgeon then you’ll want to attend an institution that will give you a solid grounding in anatomy- so that you’ll be set you up for the rest of your career.

Through a mixture of online research and speaking to some of the school’s admissions teams, I’ve tried to compile a table of every medical school that offers full-body dissection in the UK.

Just bear in mind information regarding a medical school’s teaching methods isn’t always freely available on their website- so although I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible you’ll have to forgive me for any discrepancies.

Medical SchoolAnatomy Teaching Method
Anglia Ruskin UniversityFull-body dissection
Barts Medical SchoolFull-body only on the 4 year course
Brighton & SussexFirst and second-year students dissect specific areas
University of CambridgeFull-body dissection apart from the head and neck
Cardiff UniversityFull-body dissection
University of DundeeFull-body dissection
University of GlasgowFull-body dissection plus some prosection
KeeleFull-body dissection plus some prosection
Kent and MedwayA mixture of dissection, prosection and a simulation suite
King’s College LondonFull-body dissection plus some prosection
University of LeicesterFull-body dissection
University of ManchesterFull-body dissection
Newcastle UniversityFull-body dissection
Norwich Medical SchoolFull-body dissection
University of NottinghamFull-body dissection only in first year
Queen’s University BelfastFull-body dissection
University of SheffieldFull-body dissection
University of St AndrewsFull-body dissection
The medical schools that currently offer full-body dissection in the UK

There’s an even greater number of medical schools that offer dissection in some respect on their course, but I tried to only include universities that entirely (or almost entirely) dissect the human body as a means of learning anatomy.

Over time, fewer and fewer medical schools have ended up offering dissection as part of their medicine course.

To guard against disappointment, if you’re considering applying somewhere because of the dissection opportunities, I’d always recommend giving the admissions team a quick ring to confirm how the university teaches anatomy and if there are any changes planned to the curriculum in the near future.

Do You Have To Do Dissection In Medical School?

Understandably, dissecting a human body isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.

If you can’t think of anything worse than standing in a lab leaning over a partially prosected cadaver, do you still have to do dissection in medical school?

Students do not always have to do dissection at medical school. In the UK, some medical schools teach students anatomy using only plastic models. At schools where dissection is offered, a student would likely be able to avoid ever having to actively partake in the dissection.

If your mission is to avoid human dissection like the plague then you can always only apply to medical schools that don’t offer it in the first place!

Unlike in times gone by, not every medical school offers dissection so it wouldn’t be hard to ensure you only go to a university that teaches anatomy through prosection or models alone.

Anatomy room equipment

If you are set on applying to a medical school that does carry out full-body dissection, I strongly suspect that if you made it very clear you didn’t want to partake in the dissection you wouldn’t have to actively be involved.

Students often work in groups of 5-8 students with one cadaver between them, so you could probably simply observe while your colleagues carry out the actual dissection.

Each school will of course have their own individual policies regarding such things so it would probably be worth speaking to them if you think this is going to be a problem.

Just bear in mind medical students do often find that within a couple of sessions in the dissection suite things quickly become normalised.

You don’t lose sight of the privilege it is to learn anatomy from someone’s donated body, but you do quickly get past the creepy eeriness of having lots of corpses in one room and can focus on the actual anatomy at hand.

What Is It Like To Dissect A Cadaver?

If you’ve never had the opportunity to get hands-on with a medical cadaver then it’s natural to wonder what it’s like to dissect one.

Dissecting a cadaver is similar to cutting raw meat from the butchers. Medical students often dissect in groups of 5-8 students, with one person cutting while the others observe. As a result of the preservation process, cadavers do not bleed and tissues can end up slightly compacted.

I’m sure everyone will have felt a tingle of nerves as they steadied themselves to make their first incision into a cadaver.

For me, it was a slightly surreal experience of reflecting on the fact that I was now actually at medical school and about to begin learning anatomy from a real person’s body.

Although as a result of the preservation process a cadaver’s facial features can become distorted and their heads are shaved, you can’t help but wonder about the life they lead before donating their bodies to medical science.

The actual dissecting process is somewhat similar to cutting through raw meat, such as a piece of pork belly.

I remember being surprised by the amount of soft fat that makes up the tissues in the body. With these softer tissues, you can often dissect them away using only your fingers or a pair of forceps as opposed to having to use a scalpel.

As part of the curriculum at Leicester Medical School, where I undertook my MBChB, we’d generally focus on one body system or limb at a time, first learning about the anatomical theory in a lecture before venturing down into the dissection suite.

This might mean we’d spend three weeks dissecting the forearm, before moving on to the thigh, chest cavity or head.

In these sessions you’d systematically remove the tissues, being guided by expert anatomy demonstrators as you went, building up a 3D image of how the human body is structured in your mind.

Where Do Medical Schools Get Cadavers?

Gone are the days of body snatches in Edinburgh, digging up freshly buried corpses in the graveyard to sell to a dodgy doctor who taught anatomy at the university.

With this being the case, where then do medical schools get their cadavers from?

Medical schools in the UK get their cadavers from people who have donated their bodies to medical science. Before their passing, people can indicate that they are happy for their bodies to be used for medical research or for teaching medical students.

In the UK, it’s illegal to buy or sell human remains. Therefore, medical schools have to rely entirely on the goodwill of people to donate their bodies to science.

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004, written and witnessed consent for anatomical examination must be given prior to death. Consent can’t be given by anyone else after a person has died.

Medical schools which accept donated bodies will normally only accept donations from within their local area due to the transport costs involved.

What Happens To Cadavers After Dissection?

Once medical students have learnt all they can from dissecting a body, what happens to the cadaver?

After cadavers have been dissected they are generally cremated. The ashes are then returned to the body donor’s family so that they can hold a memorial service. A fully preserved cadaver can last up to six years before they start to decay and stop being medically viable.

When someone has consented to whole body donation, their funeral is usually arranged by the medical school as there may be a delay of about two to three years before it takes place.

The medical instruments needed for dissection

With this being the case, memorial services are normally arranged so that the family can honour their loved ones prior to the funeral.

I attended the memorial service for some of the body donors in the dissection suite at Leicester Medical School.

Understandably it was a sombre affair, but it was also incredibly grounding to be able to remember the people who’d made such a valuable contribution to our learning.

Sitting in a room with the donor’s loved ones really humanised the cold bodies you’d been cutting up over the last couple of months. It felt like a real privilege to be able to remember them with those who had known them in life.

How Much Does A Cadaver Cost?

Considering the value they bring to students’ learning, how much would a medical cadaver cost in monetary terms?

A cadaver can cost a medical school between £2000-£3000 as an estimate. In the UK, the buying or selling of human bodies is illegal so universities have to rely on people donating their bodies. The costs are associated with the transport, preservation and then storage of the cadaveric specimens.

It’s difficult to put an exact price on a medical cadaver in the UK due to the fact they are never freely bought or sold.

The costs are significant however due to the specific processes a body must go through from the time of death to becoming a cadaver.

From the time of death, a body must be kept chilled. First as it’s transported to a mortuary and then during its storage in a dissection suite.

In order to preserve the body, a cocktail of toxic (and sometimes expensive) chemicals have to be pumped through the tissues, with an expert technician overseeing the process.

Further costs associated with full-body dissection for a medical school result from the upkeep costs of running a dissection suite.

These rooms are normally quite large by necessity, temperature controlled, and have to have large banks of fridges to store the specimens when not in use.

Looking to the US, where bodies can be legally sold, a broker can sell a donated human body for about $3,000 to $5,000, though prices can sometimes top $10,000 (source).

Do Medical Cadavers Smell?

Considering, at the end of the day, a medical cadaver is a long-dead body, do they smell?

Medical cadavers predominantly smell of formaldehyde. This is because formaldehyde is one of the chemicals used to preserve the bodies and has a very distinctive and strong smell. Cadavers do not smell of decomposing tissue as the process of decay has been greatly reduced through preservation.

Once you’ve been down to a dissection room you’ll never forget the smell.

Formaldehyde has an incredibly distinct, almost pickle-like odour, that stays in your nostrils long after you’ve left the cadavers behind.

Formaldehyde also has an intensely disconcerting effect of stimulating people’s appetite.

It has the uncanny ability to get medical students drooling as they daydream about their favourite foods despite being stood around cutting up human remains.

It’s a well documented effect that you may very well experience the first time you go down into a dissection room!

Final Thoughts

If you’re deliberating between two medical schools, one that offers full-body dissection and one that doesn’t, I’d go with the one that does.

It’s an incredibly unique and insightful opportunity, that you’ll probably never have again in your life.

That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily have it as a make-or-break factor in your medical school choice.

Although it is hugely beneficial for your anatomy learning, there’s a whole lot more to a medical school experience.

I think we were only down in the dissection suite for the first two years of the course at Leicester, so you just have to bear in mind there are lots of other factors that will play into your university experience.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.