Autobiographical Essays

Beate Caspari-Rosen, MD (1910 - 1995)


When I went to medical school in Berlin the curriculum was divided into two parts, pre-medical and medical, each consisting of four semesters or two years. The pre-medical courses included gross anatomy in the winter semester, and microscopic anatomy in the spring and summer semesters, as well as physiology, biology, botany, chemistry and physics, the two latter were not required by American students, since these studies were included in their college courses. Gross anatomy was the touchstone for quite a few students; some fainted or  vomited when entering and viewing the anatomy room; these students never returned. The Berlin anatomical department was as far as I know unique, for the dissecting rooms were divided according the student’s sex; this was a left-over of the nineteenth century when women were first admitted to the medical school.

My parents were anxiously waiting for me when I returned the first time from the anatomy class. I was very disturbed by this new experience, since I had never seen death before. However, once I entered the dissecting room I forgot that what I was looking at were human beings once. Call it objectivity, a removal, that permits the medical student or physician to analyze dispassionately. A long table filled with separated arms and legs stood before us and behind it were dissecting tables on which cadavers were laid out. Four students worked on one corpse and as soon as one the skin was removed one forgot that this was once a breathing human being. Many years later a freshman medical student lived with me after my husband’s death. He was very much afraid of his first day of anatomy. I sat down with him and explained that he would see the beauty of the human body after the skin is removed, the wonderful order of musculature, and the interweaving of their functions. It is almost a religious experience and wonderful to behold.

As far as I can judge we were much better trained in anatomy than the present-day student. We had to learn every muscle, its origin and where it attached to a bone. Every bone was minutely examined and our professor's hobby was the eight or ten bones that formed the wrist. He would carry them in his pocket and suddenly pull one of them out and ask you its name, and which other bones articulated with it. Naturally every nerve, vein, and artery had to be meticulously Iaid free. It was painstaking work and I spent most of the day, except for attending lectures in other medical fields, working in the anatomy room. Even the smell of formaldehyde in which the specimens were kept, and which at first nauseated me, became pleasant.

Each dissecting room' had a custodian in charge, who, for a small gratuity would help in some part of our dissection. For example, I could not bring myself to remove fingernails from the hand of my “preparation," others could not cut the skull open with a saw. None of us were really cold--blooded and we all had to force ourselves at some moment to overcome personal antipathies. As any physician experiences, we had to learn to distance ourselves, and not to get personally involved. We were in school to learn, so that at some future time we could become healers.     

As a postscript, I would like to mention that the young medical student, who by now is a practicing psychiatrist, and whom I had advised to take a more detached view of anatomical dissections, was instrumental in arranging a memorial service together with his colleagues to honor and to thank their unknown dead, who had contributed so much to their education knowledge.


Susan Koslow - Homepage

Publications | Biography | Art | Snyders | Resources | Family History