A Letter from Dr. Caroline Martin

Steiner’s junior and senior high school students in this year’s Biochemistry Elective course undertook a trimester dedicated to the practice of animal dissection. 

Steiner’s junior and senior high school students in this year’s Biochemistry Elective course undertook a trimester dedicated to the practice of animal dissection.  After a historical prelude – learning of how Michelangelo would steal by candlelight into the ‘dead room’ of an infirmary to examine the anatomy of a corpse, or pondering the medical implications of the centuries-long hiatus in the systematic practice of cadaver dissection that occurred between the third century B.C. and the Renaissance, a gap which can be argued to have thwarted the march of modern medicine – the students took up their scalpels and discovered for themselves just why the practice of animal dissection is steeped in historical, religious, spiritual, and medical significance.

My own high school experience has guided me.  While I studied many different subjects then, and with a little mental exertion could probably list any and all of these, if I had to prepare a lesson on any particular one, I would need to first refresh my memory.  One striking exception to this requirement, however, would be the dissection work that I carried out, about which I remember so vividly the details and the many complexities that it is as if the work had been conducted only this morning.  Every filamentous, tactile, and odoriferous detail of every stage of what was involved is easily brought to the forefront of my mind without a droplet of intervening mist.  I remember at the outset my biology teacher’s gentle but firm demeanor and the atmosphere of awe that pervaded the laboratory.  I remember how earnest she was, and the feeling of trust that welled up inside me and the other students.  Could we also have been afraid?  I believe so, a little.  I dissected two eyeballs (one cow, one pig, neither species made known to me) and the following week a rat, Rattus norvegicus.  I must have learned many features of complex anatomy during preparatory sessions on the chalkboard: the physics of lenses, the ecology and reproductive wizardry of rats, the mechanics of the mammalian heart, the function of the diaphragm, and more, the finer details of all of which having been gently sequestered over decades into deep recesses of my mind.  But the relationship formed between the very specimens and my hands, through which my eyes and other senses and thoughts were guided as I cautiously nipped and clipped my way through connective tissue that had evolved over eons, is forever forged along some of my clearest mental pathways.  I can still feel, and with ocular clarity “see,” each incision that I made then on those three specimens in high school.  I cannot exaggerate the extent to which this is not the case for the vast majority of the other learning I undertook as a student, theoretical or practical.  There is a sacred something about the deliberate practice of entering the space of a once-living animal that is indescribably indelible.

I wanted this unforgettable experience for the junior and seniors at Steiner, but dissection is a difficult topic to raise, with the many concerns over animal welfare and arguments for virtual, computer-generated simulations difficult to refute.  Mr. Zef Egan, our part-time life sciences teacher, with whom I share the teaching load of the biochemistry elective, was firmly on board, arguing that we should bring the students to respect the educational value of dissection while maintaining their respect for animal welfare, and for the same reasons we received the full backing from the high school science department.  Mr. Jorge Martinez, the seventh grade class teacher, inspired us with recollections of awe and wonder from his own high school dissection experience and he offered many crucial historical facts that helped to frame our supporting lessons.  What I wished to bring to the students, through personal narrative, was how to look to oneself during times of crisis.  I shared that my fear of heights once had me shaking perilously on a high scaffold at an atmospheric monitoring site, so much so that I couldn’t, under my own will, descend without the physical help of others. I revealed that it took many attempts to overcome my phobia of heights, all of which required the practice of self-reliance on a deeply meditative level.  I counselled the students that not merely dexterity and curiosity would be needed for animal dissection, but a rallying of their will forces to a honed degree of self-mastery, as many cues for aversion, such as repugnance and even distress, would not be easily triumphed over.  

The morning came for the dissection of the cow’s eye, a fascinating organ of sight with an even more fascinating evolutionary history.  The eye comes housed in layers of fatty tissue that insulate and cushion the organ and the students’ first task was to remove the eye proper from this casing.  This work took time and dedication, at first daunting one or two students, but eventually leading every one of them along a quiet and focused path of discovery.  Each student handled the operation differently, but the awe and wonder that pervaded the laboratory was unmistakable.  My wish had come true before they had even entered the eye, with the discovery of the substantiveness of the optic nerve affirming, in one act of dissection, weeks of lessons on visual processing.  Nothing could have brought me more joy than when a student, upon extracting the lens, asked, “Did the cow grow this?”  And then one after another, each student, as they incised the eye, discovered the iris, the cornea, the sclera, and more, eventually disclosing for themselves the merest of tissues, the miraculous retina held flimsily between forefinger and thumb.  And finally, comprehending the gravity of their undertaking, they beheld with wonder the iridescent kaleidoscope of the tapetum lucidum, the enhanced reflector at the back of the eyes of nocturnal mammals.

The challenge presented by Rattus norvegicus was greater than that demanded by the eye.  This notorious animal, that for many when scurrying around the subway stations and parks elicits repugnance, when submitted on a dissection tray appeared human-like and deserving of the utmost compassion and care.  Many students remarked on the attitude of the rat’s hands, how similar to ours they were when held in the attitude of final repose.  How the students made these connections I do not know, but I just as assuredly made them myself, and we all felt the intangible connection to this other lifeform.  Throughout the dissection of the rat, there were many similar moments when substantive connections were formed, such as when we were presented with the unmistakable likenesses of our digestive and breathing systems, and the students all expressed afterwards a newfound respect for the common rat.

I found the animal dissection course to be enlightening.  The careful way in which the science department members and other faculty came together to bring this experience to the students was collaboration at its most effective.  Witnessing the students’ overcoming of the many challenges was rewarding in and of itself, but deeper satisfaction arises from knowing that they take enduring lessons of self-resolve and self-mastery along with them.