Anatomy Courses Crucial for Physician Training

A Q&A with Paulette Bernd on the P&S Anatomical Donor Program


Students pursuing careers in health care can learn much from books and computer programs, but for anatomy, there is no substitute for hands-on experience. “Bodies haven’t read the textbook,” said Paulette Bernd, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology and director of the clinical gross anatomy course for first-year medical and dental students. For centuries, aspiring doctors and dentists have relied on donated bodies to learn about the human form and its myriad variations. The Anatomical Donor Program at Columbia—its new website is—provides first-year students with bodies on which to do dissections and, in doing so, to learn crucial information that a book can never teach. The CUMC Newsroom asked Dr. Bernd about the program.

What is the Anatomical Donor Program?

Dr. Bernd: The Anatomical Donor Program provides CUMC students with access to their first patients, so they can learn anatomy. Donors register in the program and inform the administrator about their medical history—communicable diseases, organ transplants, age, etc. The donor then names a person to carry out his or her last wishes. After the donor has died, the executor/executrix informs the program, and a funeral director retrieves the body and delivers death certificates to surviving loved ones. There is no cost to the donor's family.

Why are donors needed?

Donors allow their bodies to continue to teach long after they are gone. Donation helps not only the students, but their future patients as well. All medical and dental students need to learn anatomy. Though a book or 3D computer program can show what the human body ought to look like with reasonable similitude, only real-life experience doing dissections can reveal how diverse bodies can be.  In doing a dissection, the student sees the "normal" variations in arteries, nerves, and muscles. All medical schools in the United States rely on donated bodies to instruct students, but there is a shortage. Currently, the Anatomical Donor Program does not meet the needs of CUMC's medical and dental students; the shortfall is made up by contributions from upstate medical schools. Our hope is that the new website will publicize this need and increase our donor pool.

Who typically donates their bodies?

Most donors to Columbia University are from the greater New York area. Many, though not all, are alumni of Columbia University.

What should families expect when a family member donates his or her body?

The program can keep a body for up to two years or even longer. After the studies are completed, the body is cremated and the ashes are returned to the family, if desired, or interred in a grave owned by Columbia University. There is no cost for these services. Each spring, students invite donors' families to a memorial service to honor their loved ones, giving the students an opportunity to express gratitude for the tremendous gift made to their education and the families a chance to see the good that came of the donation.


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