UCSF still has an impressive anatomy lab, with a 13th-floor view of the Golden Gate Bridge and a large collection of bodies laid out on the tables. As has long been the tradition, dentistry students are still required to perform complete dissections. Surgeons also practice here. And nearly a third of the medical students choose to take a once-a-week elective in dissection.
But most anatomy lessons are incorporated into other courses and taught with computer programs and prosections.
Some medical schools have begun to incorporate virtual dissections into their curriculums.
One aid is the Visible Human, a computer program developed at the University of Colorado. The program features anatomical images taken from a cadaver -- an executed murderer from Texas -- that was frozen, then sliced into 1,871 1-millimeter cross-sections.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Anatomy -- An article in Saturday's Section A about the teaching of anatomy in medical schools incorrectly stated that the Burke and Hare scandal, in which a boardinghouse owner conspired to kill several guests and sell the bodies, occurred in England in the early 1800s. In fact, the boardinghouse was in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Starting this fall at more than two dozen medical schools, students will be able click away layers of tissue or entire organs from a 3-D image.
Chinese researchers recently cut a body into 0.1-millimeter slices. Such advances will allow finer resolution in computer models. The aim is to combine that imagery with virtual reality technology that would allow students to feel the weight, texture and elasticity of body parts without a whiff of formaldehyde.
For all the technological advances, anatomists wince at the notion that a computer simulation or video lessons could one day replace a real body.
Computers, they say, cannot recreate the experience of unveiling a heart, of witnessing firsthand all the anatomical variations in people, of seeing how the parts of the body form the whole of a human being.
"We've been dumbing down medical students, anatomywise, for the last 20 years," complained Robert Trelease, who teaches anatomy at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Arthur Dalley, head of anatomy at Vanderbilt University, which has firmly defied the trend, said some young doctors are so uncomfortable with the vagaries of the human anatomy that they have come to rely more on instruments and tests than their hands to conduct routine physical examinations.
"I think it's heartbreaking," he said.
The decision at UCSF to eliminate the dissection requirement two years ago has reverberated through medical schools nationwide. Anatomists say they feel increasing pressure from administrators to condense dissection.
"I think there's a bottom line," said Dr. John Gosling, who teaches anatomy at Stanford, "and I think we've reached it."
Todd Olson, an anatomy professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where dissection is required for all students except those also pursuing PhDs, felt that scrapping dissection could lead to less compassionate doctors.
But whether cutting up a dead body makes a more sensitive doctor is open for debate.
Increasingly, there are fewer people to champion dissection's cause.
Few academics are willing to dedicate themselves to teaching an ancient field when university careers are increasingly driven by cutting-edge research.
The luminaries on campus these days are working in immunology, cancer and genetics.
"Training in anatomy pulls you out of the research lab," said Rick Drake, who heads pure prosection anatomy training for MD and PhD candidates at Case Western Reserve University. "Nowadays, to get promotion and tenure, you need to be doing research."
In a 2002 survey by the American Assn. of Anatomists, 83% of department heads who responded said they would have great or moderate difficulty in finding qualified new teachers over the next five years.
The defenders of dissection are left pondering their own mortality. At Stanford, all three anatomy teachers are about 60.
"The three of us are at the end of our careers," Gosling said. "We will be difficult to replace."