Meryl Levin

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Shafer, Audrey


Levin, a social documentary photographer, immersed herself with the Class of 2001 in the anatomy course at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Her photographs of cadavers, students and instructors are prefaced by a foreword by physician-writer Abraham Verghese. He describes the rite of passage of anatomical dissection: "The living studying the dead. The dead instructing the living." (p. 9)

Interspersed with the full-color images are journal entries by 11 medical students and several artistic anatomic illustrations by 3 of the students. The journal entries and photographs are organized temporally, from the introduction to the dissection lab to the final exam and student-organized memorial service. The end of the book includes the interests and brief biographies of the 11 students and a final dedication by Levin of the book to those who donated their bodies: "I have never before witnessed a gift that is honored, respected, and consumed so completely."

The photographs are not for the squeamish. For example, the double amputee pelvis prosection on page 102, or the multiple images of flayed skin, bits and pieces, or limbs tied to supports provide an insider's view of an anatomy course. Many of the images show the living in motion: translucent images of students in time-lapse swirl near the static cadavers. Other images conjure the once-upon-a-time personhood of the dead: pink fingernail polish on a female cadaver or a heart palmed by a student. The intensity of the student experience is well documented, as is the relaxed atmosphere that inevitably develops as students become accustomed to the experience of dissection.

The student journal entries are sensitive and thoughtful. Students comment on the intersections of daily living, home life, and their own bodies and bodily functions with what they are learning in the classroom. Particular discomfort regarding certain dissections, such as the pelvic region, are acknowledged. Even though students note growing immunity to the dissection experience, such comments reflect insight into professionalism and defense systems. Gallows humor and uneasiness with such humor is explored by Rebecca (p 62) after she sings "New York, New York" to the roomful of cadavers. Forensic clues about the cause of death for a particular cadaver renew the sense for students that this was once a living, feeling person.

The intense, long hours required for understanding and memorizing the material are clearly evident, but ultimately, these students realize they are given a truly special opportunity: "I began to love learning the material just for the sake of learning. Anatomy no longer felt like a burden, but rather a gift." (David, p. 119) Relationships explored include those of student with cadaver (particularly respect/disrespect, ownership and protection), life with death, and those who have had the experience of dissection with those who never will.

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