New closets for old skeletons

News Feature | June Shannon | 28 Jul 2011 | 0 Comment(s)

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The School of Medicine at TCD, with its proud and sometimes macabre history, is set to move into the new biomedical sciences facility 300 years after it first opened its doors, writes June Shannon

Stepping into the Department of Anatomy at Trinity College is like stepping back in time – 186 years back to be precise. While the current anatomy building dates back to 1825, its predecessor, which formed part of the College’s first medical school, was opened 300 years ago on August 16th 1711.

This year marks the tercentenary of the School of Medicine at TCD and in a fitting tribute to its 300-year history, it has finally gotten a new home in the form of a new €131 million Biomedical Sciences facility which was formally opened last month by the Taoiseach.

The Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute is the university’s most ambitious capital project to date and represents the second phase of TCD’s Pearse Corridor Development. Built around the areas of immunology, cancer and medical devices, and linked directly to medical education and industrial collaboration, the new facility will also house all undergraduate medical education and training and will welcome its first cohort of medical students this September.

Speaking to the Medical Independent Prof Dermot Kelleher, Head of the School of Medicine at TCD said that the new facility gives the Medical School “a home” for the very first time, as prior to this it was housed in various buildings scattered around the campus.

“We have a home in the Biomedical Sciences Building so it means our students are being trained in an institute of biomedical sciences. We feel that is really where we should be at this moment in time. The students now all do research in the course of their studies and they are in the best place they could possibly be to do that. It is a very exciting time for the medical school and we are very pleased to move into such a vibrant institution,” Prof Kelleher said.

The School of Medicine’s new anatomy department will be housed in the new facility and will be fitted out with the very latest in audiovisual aids. TV screens will be situated at each dissecting site on which tutors can display diagnostic aids such as x-rays and angiograms to inform students about specific clinical diseases. The images can be directly related to what the student is looking at on the dissecting table.

According to Prof Davis Coakley, medical historian and Clinical Director of the Department of Medicine for the Elderly at St James’s Hospital in Dublin, the 300-year history of TCD’s Medical School can be traced back to August 1711 with the building of the anatomy school or Anatomy House as it was then known. As the first building of TCD’s then fledgling medical school, Anatomy House was located on the site where the College’s Berkeley Library is now situated. Interestingly, it was built by military engineer and architect Thomas Burgh – a forebearer of Irish singer and songwriter Chris de Burgh. Thomas Burgh was also responsible for designing the world famous Trinity Library which today houses the Book of Kells.

A new medical building was erected in 1825, towards the back of the main college campus. It was the first medical school since the 1711 Anatomy House. An old style anatomy lecture hall and dissecting room were added towards the end of the 19th Century.

Prof Coakley explained that, as medical teaching at the time relied heavily on the use of dissection and cadavers, it was felt that the anatomy school should be kept at a distance and it was therefore strategically located at the very back of the main TCD campus. A stone wall was built to separate the building from the college park and the only access to the main college was via a gate which remained permanently locked.

This deliberate separation of the anatomy department from the main college was testament to its very dark and murky past. According to a TCD guide on the history of the medical school, “by 1750 the teaching of anatomy in the college was unorganised, and student numbers had dwindled, principally because of the difficulty in obtaining cadavers upon which to practise. It was against the law to dissect any but executed criminals and this led to the notorious practices of bodysnatching and grave robbing.”

From the beginning of the Anatomy Hall in 1711, bodies used by the medical students for dissecting would have been those of either convicted criminals or stolen from graves. According to Prof Coakley, most of the snatched bodies were stolen from Bully’s Acre in the grounds of Kilmainham Hospital, which was once Dublin’s main cemetery.

Medical students and their professors would also partake in the gruesome task of grave robbing. While undeniably barbaric, it was also considered a very dangerous practice, as relatives took to guarding the graves of loved ones. In fact, history tells us that on one occasion a TCD medical student was shot by a grieving relative.

In 1832 the government of England brought in new legislation to guard against the grim practice of grave robbing. The 1832 Anatomy Act saw the decrease in illegally-obtained cadavers. While the Murder Act of 1752 stipulated that only the bodies of executed murderers could be used for dissection, under the 1832 Anatomy Act doctors and medical students were given legal access to unclaimed corpses, in particular those who died in prison or the workhouse. The Act also allowed for a person to donate the corpse of their next of kin.

Over its 300-year-old history the TCD Anatomy School was responsible for training a number of world-renowned doctors, including the forefathers of cardiology Dominic Corrigan (1802-1880) and William Stokes (1804-1877).

According to the TCD guide, “in 1805 there were 35 students in the Medical School, only five of whom were studying practical anatomy. The work of James Macartney (1770–1843), John Cheyne (1777–1836) and Abraham Colles (1773–1843), laid the foundations for what came to be known as the Irish School of Medicine. Macartney was appointed to the professorship of surgery and anatomy in Trinity in 1813. He was a gifted teacher and skilled anatomist.”

Prof Macartney’s work was reported to have had a profound impact on other hugely important figures in Irish medicine including William Stokes (1804–78) and Robert Graves (1796–1853) who, according to the guide, “went on to draw international attention to Dublin by their discoveries.”

In 1813 James Macartney was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Chirurgery and it was under his direction that the new medical school, known as Macartney’s Medical School, was erected at the west end of the College in 1825.

It was also said that James Macartney did not tolerate fools gladly. According to Prof Coakley, the story goes that while the medical school was under construction, Prof Macartney had his own ideas on how it should be built. He reportedly had several rows with the Board, the architect and the builder involved. On one occasion he broke his umbrella over the head of the poor unsuspecting builder and a fist fight ensued.

The remains of Macartney’s 1825 medical building forms part of the current Anatomy Museum at TCD, which houses an impressive collection of exhibits including the skeleton of the Irish giant Cornelius Magrath (1736–1760), whose corpse had reportedly been ‘snatched’ by Trinity medical students. Other exhibitions include the skeleton of one Mr William Clarke.

Born in Cork in 1677, Mr Clarke suffered from myositis ossificans. The skeleton is accompanied by an extract from a letter written by Sir Edward Barry to a Lord Orrery dated December 16th 1737, in which Sir Barry wrote:

“I have been engaged in preparing a surprising subject, one Wm. Clark who lived always with Mr. Alworthy [and who] at the age of 18 complained of stiffening in his joynts (sic). In the space of some years they were all ossified. His sceleton (sic) makes a most irregular figure. It is as difficult to describe it as the figure of the most irregular rock. He may not improperly be said to have but one bone in his body but branched out into many preternatural and irregular forms – I design to send an account of it to the Royal Society with the history of his life and some observations on it – Thus I shall spend some part of my time agreeably with the dead…”

The 1825 anatomy lecture theatre and dissecting rooms were updated and renovated in the 1950s and again the professor of anatomy at the time took a leading role, although this time it was in a constructive rather than aggressive manner. Prof Cecil Erskine was the Professor of Anatomy (1947-1984) immediately prior to Prof Moira O’Brien, who retired recently.

Prof Erskine reproduced anatomy drawings by the famous 16th Century Italian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) on huge canvases which still hang in the anatomy dissection room today. Known as the father of anatomy, Vesalius wrote the famous anatomy textbook De Humani Corporis Fabrica or the structure of the human body, which is still being reproduced for general interest today. Prof Erskine also created sculptures and copper panels to decorate the anatomy department, which also remain on display today.

While the anatomy department is to move to the new biomedical sciences building, the future of the anatomy museum, lecture theatre and dissecting rooms remains uncertain. According to Prof Kelleher, the college has yet to decide what to do with the space once it is vacated. He said the matter will be addressed once the move to the new facility has been completed.

Today the TCD anatomy department is run by Prof Paul Glacken who is due to retire later this year after 22 years as head of department. Other members of the team include Chief Technical Officers Siobhán Ward and Philomena McAteer, and technical staff Mary Lynch and Claire Murphy.

The TCD anatomy department runs a successful donor programme, which receives the remains of donors who have bequeathed their bodies to medical science.

Philomena and Siobhán were instrumental in developing a book of remembrance for the anatomy department in May 2000, to acknowledge those people who donated their remains to medicine.

At times, because of exceptional circumstances at the time of death, the department is unable to accept a donation. In these cases donor names are still recorded in the book as, according to the department, “to us, it is the intention to donate that matters, as much as the gift”.

The book of remembrance is “dedicated to those whose bodies after death have been rendered useful to their fellow creatures”.

Speaking to the Medical Independent, Siobhán and Philomena said that for the first time in almost 30 years the donor programme is currently at capacity, which they put down to the growing awareness and excellent public image of the programme.

Interestingly, both Siobhán and Philomena have noticed a sea change in public attitudes towards donor programmes in anatomy over the last 30 years. Thanks to the advent of new developments such as remembrance ceremonies etc, the practice has moved from one that was only spoken of in hushed tones to one that is now openly discussed.

There are many reasons why people decide to donate their bodies to science. However the overriding one seems to be a genuine desire on behalf of the donor to give something back to society.

It is thanks to these silent teachers that up to 600 students across nine disciplines including medicine, physiotherapy, dentistry, and occupational therapy have the privilege of learning from human donor remains every week in the TCD anatomy department.

With the move to the new Biomedical Sciences Institute, anatomy teaching at TCD will now be provided in a fit-for-purpose 21st Century facility. However in looking to the future it is also important to look back and acknowledge all those silent and not so silent teachers who were instrumental in shaping its 300-year-old past.


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