biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow cadaver corpse

Cadavers are not Meant to Last

But there are ways to keep cadavers useful

In Jamaica at the University of the West Indies, my laboratory in the Electron Microscopy Centre was very close to the Department of Anatomy – so close in fact that I frequently had to drop in there to pick up samples or to speak to my anatomy colleagues. On some occasions, I found the medical students very occupied with human corpses.

Sometimes, it was the anatomy of the leg they had to examine, sometimes they were busy with what you’d find in the chest and sometimes the students felt their human study subjects weren’t sufficient ‘life-like’, but too stiff and rather pale. Well, I suppose you won’t be too surprised to hear that, given that the students, after all, were working on corpses.
Although the anatomy practicals are an essential component of the medical course, exercises in cadaver dissections are perhaps even more important for those students wishing to become surgeons. It is for their exercises that suitable cadavers need to possess certain physical and chemical characteristics to make them seem rather life-like.

There are, however, differences between cadavers that have undergone non-identical fixation or embalming treatments. To learn the surgical skills stiff bodies are unsuitable as they feel unreal and artificial. It is therefore essential that properly embalmed material is available. In a study by Sam Sik Shin, Hyung Chae Yang, Kwang Il Nam, published in 2016 in the Korean Journal of Physical Anthropology two different embalming fluids used in the preservation of cadavers were compared with each other in order to assess joint flexibility, tissue pliability and colour as well as resistance to fungal and bacterial growth in the preserved bodies. What was the outcome?
Embalming with ethanol-glycerin fixative (known as the EGF-method) was judged to be significantly more successful than formalin-phenol-fixed material (known as the FPF-method). Tissue colour, texture, elasticity softness, skin incisions, vessel ligation and suture, decollement and odour were characteristics deemed far better when the EGF method was used. Movement of shoulder, elbow and wrist joints also benefitted more from the EGF than the FPF treatment, but elbow extension fared somewhat better when the FPF method had been used. With regard to the prevention of bacterial and fungal growth following a refrigerated stay of 8 weeks and in connection with ultrasound imaging of the abdominal organs as well as the thick layers of the thigh musculature, the EGF cadavers once again beat the FPF cadavers.

To find the best and most suitable preservation method is not just important for medical students and their training as doctors and surgeons, it is also terribly important for comparative histological and cytological studies. The aim is to preserve as instantly and reliably as possible the tissue and cell characteristics of an organism so that sections of the material examined under the light or electron microscope reveal as natural as possible a picture of what the living material would have been like. There are many who’d claim that proper fixation is an art and that dissections and imaging cells and tissues are equally artistic exercises. In case of some doubters amongst the readers: why don’t you take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical masterpieces sometime? They might convince you .

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2019.
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