Medicine Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Teaching the Anatomy of Death: A Dying Art?

  • Philomena Horsley
Past and Present


Along with anatomical dissection, attendance at hospital autopsies has historically been seen as an essential part of medical education. While the use of the dead body for teaching purposes is losing favour in Australian medical schools, this shift is preceded by a significant decline in the rate of autopsies nationwide (and internationally). The decline of the autopsy has particular implications for pathology training where the capacity to perform an autopsy is a requirement. Rather than join the debates in medical literature about the merits of these shifts, this article goes behind the scenes of a hospital mortuary to study autopsy training and practice from the perspective of those who undertake it. The article first introduces the discipline of pathology—‘the science of medicine’—which is built upon centuries of post-mortem study and establishes the fact of the disappearing autopsy. The article then draws upon data from anthropological fieldwork in a Department of Anatomical Pathology to discuss some of the ways trainees manage the work of cutting up the dead. Concepts such as detachment, immersion and disciplinary practice are covered in during this unveiling of everyday practice in a hospital mortuary.


Corpse Autopsy Anatomical pathology Dissection Medical detachment 



I sincerely thank the staff of “Hillside’s” Department of Anatomical Pathology. These men and women were unaccountably generous in providing access to their workplace, their knowledge, their time, as well as giving their trust. They opened the doors of hospital medicine to me. I also acknowledge the Centre for Health and Society at the University of Melbourne, under whose auspice this research was conducted.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CWHGS, School of Population Health, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health SciencesThe University of MelbourneCarltonAustralia

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