Upon entering the small room in the Science North building, the scent of formaldehyde hits like an uppercut to the nose. Inside, a familiar form rests covered in a white sheet. At one end protrudes the unmistakable shape of a nose and chin. At the other, toes point to the ceiling.
This is Cal Poly’s cadaver lab, where students enrolled in human anatomy and physiology courses I and II get hands-on experience with real dead bodies.
The cadavers are used for observation only by students enrolled in some upper division biology classes. Additionally, about three lucky students are chosen each year to actually dissect a cadaver as their senior projects.
“Students beg to dissect the cadavers; there is a huge waiting list,” said Emily Taylor, an assistant biology professor.
“Usually, it’s the students who sign up as sophomores and get really good grades in their classes that get to dissect the cadavers as seniors.”
Cal Poly is one of the few universities using real cadavers for undergraduate students to work with. Most rely on textbooks, models and computer simulations to teach anatomy and physiology, forcing students to wait until after graduation for the opportunity to work on the real thing. Presently, a male and female human, as well as a sea lion cadaver, are stored on campus.
“Cadavers are a pretty sweet learning tool,” said Grant Waltz, a teacher’s assistant and Cal Poly marine biology graduate who routinely works with the cadavers. “Students get more from them than from a book or computer program.”
Since the sale of human bodies or organs is illegal in the United States, the cadavers are actually on loan as part of the University of California, San Francisco’s Willed Body Program, which distributes donated bodies to research and educational institutions. People can donate their bodies to science as long as they did not die from an infectious disease.
“Most cadavers were elderly persons who received a lot of medical help during their lives and wanted to give back to science and medicine by donating their bodies after they die,” Taylor said.
Generally, a cadaver will be loaned for three years, after which the dissected remains are returned to UCSF for cremation. The fee to loan a cadaver increases annually. Last year, Cal Poly paid $2,300 for a cadaver of a 90-year-old male who died from Alzheimer’s disease.
Before arriving at Cal Poly, cadavers are drained of blood and embalmed using formaldehyde. Without blood, the bodies turn a dull yellow-brown, but everything from skin tissue to hair is perfectly preserved.
Maintenance includes keeping the bodies moist with a formaldehyde solution and storing them in a refrigerator when not in use to prevent decomposing or mold growth.
Because formaldehyde fumes can be harmful when breathed for long periods of time, students are only allowed brief sessions with the cadavers and must wear respiratory masks to protect them from carcinogens.
Biology senior Melinda Davis is one of the few to have worked with the female cadaver by dissecting muscle tissue from the face and preparing it for study by future students.
“It was a very interesting experience,” Davis said. “It was difficult at first to actually work with a real cadaver, but it got easier. Students will be benefiting from my dissection for years to come and that makes me proud. I am very appreciative for the opportunity.”
According to Taylor, even the most eager students feel woozy when first observing a real dead body. Most of the time the cadaver’s hands, feet and face are kept covered, making it less personable.
Once students start working with it, they usually prefer the real thing over a simulation, Taylor said.
“It’s not so bad; it’s really just like any other body,” Waltz said. “Whether it’s a rat, crab or clam, it’s all biology.”