Six Weeks of Gross Anatomy

It’s the most famous course offered in medical school. Gross Anatomy defines the experience of the medical student in popular culture. As it turns out it is also defining for the students themselves. Many in my class commented that although they received their white coats weeks earlier at a formal coating ceremony, they didn’t feel that they were truly physicians-in-training until they stepped through the doors of the Gross Anatomy lab. I had a similar experience. With so much of what I thought medical school would be wrapped up in this six-week course, I couldn’t help but feel like this would be medical school condensed: I would enter as essentially an undergraduate student and emerge prepared (at least mentally) to begin to do the work of a doctor. There were aspects of that sentiment that proved to be true and many that didn’t. There were moments that left me in awe and moments that troubled me. For something that most people probably think of as unnatural or foreign, I found it to be a very humanizing experience. I’ll try and explain what I mean throughout this post.

First, I’d like to talk a bit about the logistics of the course. The lab portion dominates the conversation, but the lecture portion is just as involved. The amount and pace of material is staggering; with only six weeks to learn the entirety of human structure it would be very easy to fall impossibly behind. Our class had a single lecture over a portion of the body followed by the corresponding laboratory; lab groups rotated so that any one group was only required to be in lab two of the four lab days per week. If you wanted to get a good sense of the anatomy of an area, however, you needed to go to sessions you weren’t assigned to, lest you perform poorly on that section of the weekly lab practical. The lab practical is an important part of the course, as structures look very different in real bodies than they look in an atlas or textbook. Humans have an enormous number of variations from what is taught as “normal”, so recognizing those structures on a practical requires spending time with the actual anatomy upon which you’ll be tested.

I’ll admit to sharing the nerves that some of my classmates spoke of prior to our first lab session. There were a lot of procedures to follow as we prepared to work with human bodies. Trading our white coats for scrubs, lab coats, and gloves, we entered not knowing what to expect. It’s a testament to how much work there is to do in each session that we didn’t hesitate to begin. I was surprised at how quickly I became comfortable working with the bodies. As students who had been working their entire lives toward taking this course and learning the fundamentals of anatomy, I think it would be hard not to quickly become engrossed in identifying structures and figuring out how our form lends itself to function. Without labels and notes like you’d find in a textbook or anatomy atlas, the sheer number of structures to identify was overwhelming. We generally had two people working to expose structures and two people identifying them in an atlas.

There are a couple of things about anatomy that I learned during this course that I really didn’t know. The first is that the body is composed of many more layers than you’d think. Layers of fascia, fat, and thin sheets of muscle overlie and separate most everything. This can be helpful for figuring out where you are, but it also adds a measure of complexity. The other surprising thing for me was what I alluded to above: our bodies are all substantially different. The most striking example of this is the vasculature. Variations in major blood vessels that you might expect to be conserved between people are very common. Thankfully our professors mostly abstained from testing us over structures that deviated from the textbook. One thing that I had anticipated but wasn’t fully prepared for is the complexity of the human body. I think that learning all of this did make me feel more ready to be a physician; I feel that now that I have a sense of the scale of the complexity of the body, I can delve into and understand the scope of things that can go wrong with it.

The last thing I’d like to talk about is what I mentioned in the first paragraph. I found this experience to be very humanizing in that we gained an appreciation of how life affects the body. I mentioned above that function flows from form; I’d also say that form flows from life’s experiences. Stumbling upon evidence of surgeries & healed injuries is a jarring reminder that you are learning anatomy from a person who made the decision to assist in your medical education. My school goes a step further and allowed us to meet and thank the families of our donors. This was an amazing experience and one that afforded us the opportunity to learn how our donors lived and why they decided to participate in the program. I’m not certain how many other schools allow students to know details about their donors, but I found it to be incredibly rewarding. As I entered the lab I was able to not only learn anatomy from our donors, but also appreciate the incredible lives that they lived. When you know a little bit about them, the person in the lab is not at all far removed from the patient in the exam room.

I hope this has helped you to understand a little bit more about how this course works; I also hope it may decrease the nerves for those of you preparing to take it, whether in undergrad or medical school. If you have any questions about medical school gross anatomy, medical curricula in general, or anything else, feel free to send me an email at