As any anatomy student will tell you, your first day inside Anderson Stuart’s famous anatomical labs is a memorable one, and my first practical experience in the Harvarian Theatre was just that. For many, the most memorable moment is their first experience of a cadaver lab, and the awe of holding a human brain in their hands. For me, it was the anatomical models.
Over the course of my scientific career, I’ve been in countless labs and seen countless anatomical models. They all look very similar: white skin, blonde hair, male genitalia and, usually, a detachable organ or two.
But these weren’t just any anatomical models.
As I scanned the models in the lab that day, I found myself doing double takes. These models were not the white-skinned, penis wielding teaching tools of the norm. They displayed a variety of ethnically diverse features, but also varied widely in male and female genitalia, some even appearing as hermaphroditic.
I was struck by the novelty, closely followed by the disturbing realisation that this was something that inspired novelty at all. As I strayed from my dissection table to further examine a hermaphroditic model with Asian features and breasts, I found myself grinning and overwhelmed with the most peculiar kind of University pride.
If the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was right and the human body really is the best picture of the human soul, who nominated a million identical John Smiths to occupy the endlessly eclectic and anatomically–diverse nature of the human race in our anatomy labs, and what motivated Sydney University to head the rebellion?
As it would turn out, Sydney University stands very much alone in its model diversity. Calls to several anatomy faculties and medical schools in Sydney including the Sydney University of Technology, the University of NSW, Western Sydney University and the University of Notre Dame Medical School not only confirmed their anatomical models are distinctly Caucasian, but that many of them had never even so much as heard of ethnically diverse options for models, despite having purchased them from 3B Scientific, the same company as those found in the Anderson Stuart labs.
A quick search will land you on the 3B Scientific web catalog of anatomy models. A few more clicks will get you a 24-part Deluxe Dual Sex Torso in “African”, “Asian” or “Classic” for only $1 035.33 AUD. The product page of each model offers several promotional blurbs ranging from the high quality manufacture of your hand-painted model, extensive list of removable organs and even an assurance that your model can be used to “answer all questions on internal human anatomy you ever had”. There was however, no comment about the ethnic models, other than that Asian models had been developed particularly for Asian schools.
As for the motivation behind the purchase of the African and Asian models for Anderson Stuart, head of the Discipline of Anatomy and Histology Dr Kevin Keay and Manager of the anatomy facilities in the Discipline Dr Marcus Robinson confirm that the intention revolved around creating a more ethnically diverse learning environment for anatomy students. Dr Robinson goes on to elaborate that although “[The Discipline of Anatomy and Histology] is mostly concerned with the internal anatomy in our teaching – which is no different regardless of a person’s ethnic background – but we believe the environment we teach in can reflect our student and staff makeup better and this is one way we can do that.”
As for the opinion of the Anatomy and Histology faculty staff, Senior Anatomy and Histology lecturer Dr Karen Cullen maintains the reason for their purchase was clear. “I thought it was a good idea, because they’ve always been just these pale skinned models, but of course that’s not what we look like. The updated lab provides an opportunity to refresh the picture so it looks more like us”. She laughs when I ask about student comments on the models. “It is kind of funny, because the thing that bothers people the most about them is just the hairstyle. Just really bad hair, I hear that comment all the time.”
There is an argument to be made for the negligible importance of ethnic diversity in a learn- ing tool that is used exclusively for the purpose of teaching internal anatomy which is, of course, entirely unaffected by external ethnic features. In this sense, the colour of a plastic model’s skin might seem insignificant. However, the most powerful reason behind ethnic diversity of anatomical models lies in the very connotation associated with their role in education.
The role of an anatomical model is to do just that, model human anatomy. The anatomy that is the most fundamental, visceral representation of what it means to be human and the one undeniable connection between all seven billion of us. The true brilliance of diversity conveyed by our anatomical models is the concurrence of these ideas – the external reminder of the magnificently diverse uniqueness of each and every individual, and the knowledge that just below the surface, we are one.