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’Knowing everything and yet nothing about her’: medical students’ reflections on their experience of the dissection room
  1. Christopher Kassam1,
  2. Robbie Duschinsky2,
  3. Cecilia Brassett3,
  4. Stephen Barclay2
  1. 1 Department of Renal Medicine, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, UK
  2. 2 Department of Public Health and Primary Care, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  3. 3 Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Mr Christopher Kassam, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge CB2 0QQ, UK; christopher.kassam{at}


Anatomy education by cadaveric dissection teaches medical students not only the formal curriculum in human anatomy, but also a ‘hidden curriculum’ whereby they learn the attitudes, identities and behaviours expected of doctors. While dissection has been investigated as a challenge to and training in emotional regulation, little attention has been paid hitherto to the forms of medical knowledge and identity which students encounter and develop in the dissection room. This study analyses a corpus of 119 tributes written by three consecutive cohorts of first-year medical students at a university to their cadaveric donors. We employ a Foucauldian discourse analysis methodology, seeking to elucidate the features of the subject position, the narrative ‘I’ or ‘we’ of the tributes, and the modes of knowledge which operate between that subject position and its object, the donor. We observe that students find themselves in a transitional state between personal and scientific modes of knowledge of the human, which correspond to different models of the subject position occupied by the student. While in many tributes these modes exist in an uneasy disjunction, others employ creative reflection to suggest new modes of knowledge and identity which may inform ethical practice.

  • medical anthropology
  • medical education
  • narrative medicine
  • medical humanities
  • philosophy of medicine/health care

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  • Contributors CK is a former medical student at Cambridge, and RD, CB and SB teach Cambridge medical students.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by the University of Cambridge Human Biology Research Ethics Committee (ref: HBREC.2015.19). As the study makes use of an existing data set and consent was obtained from all participants, the only ethical issue that arises is the maintenance of confidentiality; this was accomplished by anonymisation.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement No data can be made available due to confidentiality requirements.