How to dismantle a body

Don’t be too grossed out, but the University of Wisconsin Madison has put a whole series of high-quality videos of human dissection online. It’s extremely cool, but not for the squeamish—there’s more than just the sight of a cadaver getting hacked up, and the sound of a saw on bone or a chisel being used to peel up the cranium are, ummm, memorable. At least you’re spared the odor and the textures.

I’d almost forgotten how muscular gross anatomy is—it takes some heft and brute force to take apart a body.

(via Mind Hacks)


  1. Russell says

    I’ll confess that I never cared for the sour smell of living bone being sawed. But you get used to most anything. ;-)

  2. spondee says

    The reaction I’m having just from imagining what you’re describing reminds me of why I was an arts major.

  3. says

    Jeeeeesus, I watched the first video AND THE GUY DOING THE CUTTING ISN”T WEARING GLOVES! Aaahhhhh! I am not usually sqeamish, but, seeing crap sticking to his fingers while he’s lifting flaps of skin. There goes dinner won’t be eating for awhile.

  4. says

    spondee –

    Exactly! My own reaction reaffirms why I’m better off being an electronic engineer!

    During basic training the Air Force tried to get me to switch my specialty from electronics into para-rescue. The paramedic portion of pararescue film advertisement was not good for me. Blood, bone, more blood… excuse me while I go lay down.

    I find biology fascinating as long as I can see it as an abstraction – like through a microscope or via a CAD demonstration of a body.

    I find electronics to be so much neater – CAD, prototypes, physics, math and soldering iron (or hammer – when needed.)

    To me the best thing about electronics is that I can open up a “patient” and pull out all the guts late on a Friday afternoon and leave it there without worry that it will die until I get back Monday morning. Plus the relaxing weekend and a hot cup of coffee are great for bringing fresh insight to the problem I left behind on Friday.

    I’m really grateful to everyone who studied biology and made my life better through their work. Y’all keep doing your thing and let the EE’s keep the lights on for you.

    I’ll get up and help you out right after my stomach stops spinning.

  5. HP says

    Lightweights. I went straight to the “Superficial Face” video. I like a cadaver with personality.

    That said, I started watching because I’m perversely morbid, but as I watched I became fascinated both by the incredible complexity of the body, and by the skill and dedication of people who can bring it out. Did you know that the facial artery is coiled like the cord on a telephone handset, so you can open your mouth really wide without tearing it? You gotta admit, that’s pretty cool to see.

    BTW, I went to music school, and I think this stuff is amazing. If squeamishness is the only reason you studied the arts, you studied the arts for the wrong reason.

  6. Alex Weaver says


    Reminds me of a comment I thought of a while ago but am semi-saving until I actually have my engineering degree. “What is it with the Discovery Institute and this absurd idea that having a degree in *something* qualifies you to criticize biology? Expertise doesn’t just transfer like that. I mean, I’m going to be an engineer; does that mean you want me doing your heart bypass? Oh, you do? Well, ok. Lie back; let’s see…I’m gonna need a hacksaw, an Exacto, a couple of wrenches, and the following Swagelok parts…”

  7. MNObserver says

    In the early days of my legal career, I had to do some work on an appeal of a very grisly murder. The suspect was caught when the garbage bags containing the hacked-up body of the victim (yes it was his wife – didn’t want to put her through the pain of a divorce) floated to the surface of the lake in which it had been submerged. As we read through the trial transcript, the evidence pointed out that a good deal of the remains had been sent down the family garbage disposal. But it was the intestines of all things that finally proved too much for the old In-sinker-ator, thus requiring garbage bags and bricks.

    So yeah, bodies are tough.

  8. HP says

    Steve_C: I’m sure you did. That last bit was supposed be a lighthearted jab at Spondee’s comment, which I also assumed was also lighthearted. I guess it looks a bit meaner in print. I was smiling when I typed it….

  9. jeff says

    I knew from an early age that I am no doctor. (Yet, I had little problem cleaning animals I hunted…)

  10. Great White Wonder says

    Wow, when you take the hood off a human it looks just like a freaking car engine!


    Think of any of the Discovery Institute losers will donate their corpses to science?

  11. Steviepinhead says


    I guess it looks a bit meaner in print. I was smiling when I typed it….

    I always smile when I’m being mean, I said, smilingly.

  12. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “gross anatomy”

    Yes. I had to do most of the biology class dissections since my partner chickened out. I don’t gross out easily by sight, sound or sense. Unfortunately, I have a keen sense of smell…

  13. Anuminous says

    Fabulous stuff. Before my current career in veteranary software I spent quite a few years in various (human) medical support and technical positions. I will never forget the smell of the first autopsy I assisted in. It was a 75 year old alcoholic, and the ripeness within was something else.

    One of my favorite parts about being in IT these days is when one of my ‘patients’ dies, I can just strip it for parts and build a new one. It is much more stressful in medicine, and that does not even include the torch-and-pitchfork problems that the rebuild brings on…

  14. Jeebus says


    Trust me… after being elbow-deep in intestines for long enough, the gloves aren’t even helping anymore.

    Eventually, they just get in the way, and you stop using them.

  15. Carlie says

    And this is one reason I’m a botanist. I’ll take the beauty of stem vasculature any day, thanks. I can appreciate the workings of the animal body, but it just doesn’t move me in the same way.

  16. mndarwinist says

    Some commentators have already mentioned it, and it’s very disturbing. Why aren’t they wearing gloves? True, the cadavers have been fixed in chemicals, but still, are you going to trust that you are not exposing yourself to something?

  17. mndarwinist says

    In some they did, and in some they didn’t.
    Anyway, there was no neuroanatomy video. Disappointing.

  18. says

    After seeing those videos I will never urinate on another dead body again. Maybe.

    But in all seriousness, I’ll stick to CS and Math. I’m such a squeamish mofo that I can’t even dissect a fish without gagging.

  19. quantum says

    These videos proves that humans are just like any other animals. And all animals are just machines whose aim is to reproduce.
    Strangely, sometimes I feel hungry watching such things.

  20. says

    … all animals are just machines whose aim is to reproduce.

    Quantum, what do you mean by “machine”? An engineer uses that word to describe an arrangement of physical components — such as an inclined plane or a screw or a lever — which produces mechanical advantage. So I’m guessing that’s not the usage you have in mind.

    “Machine” can also, more recently, describe an arrangement of parts which allows energy conversion and use, typically starting with conversion of chemical or electrical energy into rotary movement, and ending up with some kind of motion that is useful to humans. That usage is also not a good match for your context.

    Do you mean something like a post-Newtonian clockwork? Or like an automobile, which burns fossil fuel to produce locomotion?

    I cannot think of any common usage of the word “machine” which fits the human organism. To state one obvious difference, the human body grows, while a machine must be built.

    Therefore I would conclude that you are using the term “machine” to convey a certain distance from your subject. Are you not also human, and thus subject to your own description?

    Do you feel like a machine? I don’t.

  21. SuzieQ3417 says

    I’m a first year med student currently in the middle of this stuff. I have to say, most of it doesn’t make me squeamish – except for the smell from the bone saw. I’ve had to walk away from the table a few times because of that smell. We also have a few anatomy professors who refuse to wear gloves, but I’m not sure how much of a difference a layer or two of latex actually makes. The smell and chemicals manage to permeate them, and lots of handwashing afterwards only takes care of so much.
    That being said, its strange how dissecting does not take away your appetite – if anything it makes you more hungry. I have no idea why it works that way, but it was certainly an unexpected consequence.

  22. says

    When I took Anatomy & Physiology in college (when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life…this was before geology, you see…), we got to go to the anatomy lab at the nearby medical school. It was so amazing. They had several cadavers being dissected, as well as some “standard” dissections — a hand and arm showing musculature, male and female pelvic cross-sections showing the reproductive system, leg and foot, etc. Looking at the female reproductive system was my favorite part…it was just so intricate and beautiful, and what was cooler was knowing I had the same stuff! Also, I got to learn to stitch up skin! I was so amazed and impressed, I got permission not only to go back the second day (the class was big, so there were two days of “field trip”), but I managed to get permission to bring my boyfriend (also going through a “What shall I do with my life?” time).

    I guess it made an impression on him. When my boyfriend’s mom died in February, she donated her body to the medical school associated with the hospital she was in, at the suggestion of my boyfriend and I. I am so proud of her :)

  23. pluky says

    For the previously posted artists — Be thankful you didn’t have to train under da Vinci. As I recall he was a quite accomplished anatomist.

  24. Emkay says

    Cool! Thanx for that PZ. OK to watch, but pretty sure I wouldn’t want to wield the knife. I had a bit of trouble with the face dissection, but the ‘brainectomy’ was neat. My wife caught me watching that one, and asked if I was going to take up brain surgery…I said I was ready! (I’m a woodworker, so I already have the saw….)

  25. Pygmy Loris says

    This is why I’m a physical anthropologist specializing in osteology and dental anthropology. Dry bones don’t smell. As for dissecting cadavers, the smell really isn’t that bad. Try working a forensic case that has been decomposing for a few days in the summer heat. That will make you lose your lunch!

    It’s always the smell for me, slicing people open, blood, all that doesn’t bother me, but oh, ye gods the smell!

  26. Nymphalidae says

    You lucky assholes with your huge human bodies to dissect. I’m taking principles of insect morphology and we have to dissect house fly brains. I’m going to assume that Kahl’s solution and xylene don’t smell nearly as bad as rotting human flesh, though.

  27. says

    You get whole flies to dissect? Why, in my day, I had to dissect the brains of fly embryos. And then I’d have to stick itty bitty needles in single neurons.

  28. fusilier says

    Smell? what smell?

    After a few years your nasal epithelium is gone and you can’t smell anything, anyway.

    James 2:24

  29. Keanus says

    The highlight of my high school biology class in Houston (back in the mid ’50’s was a visit to Baylor Medical School’s “museum.” The feature was a display of a body in about 75 cross sections, differenteially stained and under glass from head to toes. I didn’t go into biology but I still found this engrossing enough to keep me occupied for the better part off three hours. They also had other perserved specimens, mostly abnormalities of one kind or another. Fascinating.

  30. Keanus says

    The highlight of my high school biology class in Houston (back in the mid ’50’s was a visit to Baylor Medical School’s “museum.” The feature was a display of a body in about 75 cross sections, differenteially stained and under glass from head to toes. I didn’t go into biology but I still found this engrossing enough to keep me occupied for the better part off three hours. They also had other perserved specimens, mostly abnormalities of one kind or another. Fascinating.

    After that a one-day visit four years later to my sister’s gross anatomy lab at Cornell Medical School was old hat, even in the presence of the overwhelming aroma of phenol and multiple cadavers strewn across the lab!

  31. says

    Dissections never bothered me much. I’ve done the undergard bio standards–earthworms, clams, fetal pigs, live roaches. The roaches were memorable–I recall the story was if they’re dead the tissues sorta collapse, so we had to keep them (mostly) alive. There may have been others; it’s been a while. All no biggy. Formaldehyde isn’t a particularly pleasant smell, but there are worse things under the sun.

    But I remember this one film I saw–a muscle transplant operation. Was okay with it until they did this thing…

    They took the donor muscle after they’d removed it, and before they put it back–it’s all red ‘n glistening–one of the big ones–think it was from the thigh–and they touched electrodes to it, to show how it flexed…

    Bad. Didn’t like that. Not at all. Looked a bit like a lump of liver that suddenly tried to jump off the plate and run away. It didn’t cost me my lunch, but my stomach definitely disapproved.

  32. says

    I’ve read several books on early anatomists and surgery lately, so these are really cool. Check out Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man, about John Hunter, England’s premier anatomist and surgeon in the eighteenth century, and Carl Zimmer’s Soul Made Flesh, about Thomas Willis (of the Circle of Willis), who was one of the core members of the “Oxford Circle”, some of whom went on to form the Royal Society. Willis and his colleagues did some of the early work on the brain, and Zimmer’s book describes how the soul’s location or communication nexus with the body was steadily narrowed down until, of course, it wasn’t found.

    Then go watch the videos and see for yourself!

  33. DrBadger says

    Thanks for posting this… I went to med school at UW, so I’ve personally met that person (and the guy dissecing him). I’ll send him (the teacher) the link, he’ll be happy he’s popular now (because when you’re on Pharyngula, you’re popular).

    Btw, they fix the bodies and preserve them in alcohol, so it doesn’t really smell that much (no formaldehyde) and you can’t get diseases from them… by the end of the year, everyone stops using gloves.