Anatomy lab is a rite of passage for medical students. The first time they don scrubs, pick up scalpels and approach a human cadaver is, for most physicians, an indelible moment.  

It’s easy to assume that seasoned physicians are guiding future physicians in the lab, but it’s not always the case. Often, it’s an anthropologist who helps med students navigate this new terrain of bone, ligaments and organs. That’s true at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, where anthropology professor Laura Shackelford is in the process of leading the college’s second class of students through basic anatomy.  

“Anthropology is one of the few disciplines that studies the whole human, rather than just studying a human at a cellular level or microbiological level,” Shackelford said, when asked why anthropologists make good anatomy lab instructors. “These students are all going to be dealing with people. They need to recognize the whole human. It’s easy to approach medicine as a pathology to understand or as a problem that needs to be solved. But that’s not what people are, and no problem is solved in a single way. We know there’s no disease process that doesn’t affect the entire person.”

Shackelford began her undergraduate education as a dance major, which fed her fascination with how the body is put together and able to move in so many different ways. While taking a geology course her freshman year, Shackelford made a life-changing discovery: the existence of a field known as biological anthropology. She switched her major.  

It was a few years later, as a graduate student in biological anthropology and evolution, that Shackelford had her first anatomy lab experience, at the Washington University School of Medicine. She said the semester-long course, which met five days a week, was grueling, but also fascinating. Shackelford decided to stick around the lab to be a TA and eventually gain the proficiency needed to teach.  

“I know it’s surprising, but not everybody is looking to hire an anthropologist,” Shackelford jokes. “Teaching anatomy lab is a great skill to have.” 

Anthropologists are teaching anatomy lab courses at more than 60 percent of medical schools in the U.S., Shackelford estimates. At Carle Illinois, which welcomed its inaugural class of students in 2018, the humanities are being woven into the innovative curriculum, along with engineering. Shackelford said that’s important because humanities disciplines offer invaluable insights and perspectives on the human condition.  

“Medical students need to not only be able to interact with their patients in a kind, supportive way, they need to be able to listen and communicate. It’s just as important as other clinical skills,” Shackelford said. “If you can’t talk to your doctor, that can be just as debilitating as a disease that’s not identified.” 

At Carle Illinois, Shackelford is known for her sensitivity—toward the anatomy donors and toward the students. To orient them to the lab, she sets a tone of respect for the bodies as patients, and schedules a low-pressure opportunity for students to see the lab space and experience the notorious smells. The next time they come to the lab to get to work, Shackelford said, students seem “much calmer.” 

“In the lab, there’s a fine line between the humanity of the people you’re working on and your own humanity,” she said. “Anthropology never breaks down the human into component parts, but in the lab it can be tricky. Sometimes you have to distance yourself and be precise, focused on a specific part of the body.”  

By the time their 18-month anatomy lab course concluded, Carle Illinois students were in a very different frame of mind than when they first stepped into the lab, with its covered cadavers and overpowering scents. They were more confident, and calm. And they were also very grateful for the experience, and for all they learned.  

In an October 17 ceremony of appreciation for the anatomy donors, the students presented works of art, poetry, music and other reflections. While each contribution was unique, they all in some way explored the liminal spaces students encountered in the lab—the fine lines between life and death, patients and cadavers, science and humanities. 

Shackelford also spoke at the event, telling students that “the way we care for the dead translates into the way we care for the living.” Although it can be easy to become desensitized to activities performed in the lab, she added, “Don’t educate the empathy out of yourself or your practice. Let these first patients become part of your treatment plans, and your ways of healing in the future.”