Harvey Cushing:John Hay Whitney Medical Library

In a breach of medical standards, numerous photographs found in Yale School of Medicine yearbooks depict medical students posing with human donors. Some of the photos are also accompanied by lewd captions.

The photos were published in the 1990s and also in 2011. School of Medicine anatomy professor Bill Stewart, who has taught anatomy at Yale since 1978, said he would not have allowed the photos had he been aware of them. Other anatomy professors who are not affiliated with the University noted that humor was once used to assuage the discomfort that came from performing dissections on a human body. Still, they called the photos disrespectful.

“It is expected that any student in the lab follows ethical standards of conduct so that appropriate respect is afforded to the individuals who donated their bodies to science,” School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern wrote in an email to the News.

Head of the Medical Historical Library Melissa Grafe said that the medical school does not publish yearbooks annually. However, their collection includes yearbooks that span throughout the late 20th and early 21st century. Many of these yearbooks have a section with pictures from medical students’ first-year anatomy lab.

Numerous photos published in these sections from the 1990s show students dissecting unobscured human donors. One depicts six smiling medical students surrounding a donor’s head. Another shows a female student holding a dissected hand and forearm captioned, “A hand job.” An additional photo shows a male student working over a donor’s torso with the caption, “Urologist at the wrong end of the body.”

The anatomy lab photos published in yearbooks from the 21st century mostly depict students at work during the lab without exposed human tissue, which according to Stewart was in line with the School of Medicine’s policies at the time. But one from 2011 shows several students working over a body with its organs clearly visible.

When asked for comment on the photos, another Yale anatomy professor Lawrence Rizzolo, said that he “strenuously disapproved” of their images and their captions.

“They violate the ethical norms of our profession that we wish to instill in our students,” he wrote in an email to the News.

Stewart said that about five years ago, photography became prohibited within the anatomy lab. Today, Yale’s medical students also sign a standards of conduct document, which states that signees must not take any photos or videos without permission from the section chief of anatomy. Violation of these terms “may result in loss of access to the lab,” the document states.

“Photography is strictly prohibited in the anatomy lab, and any photos taken are done without approval and in violation of our policy,” University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News.

Five non-Yale anatomy professors also condemned the photos and lewd captions.

Duke University evolutionary anthropology professor Daniel Schmitt, who has been involved with teaching anatomy at Duke, said that while the picture of the students smiling around the donor’s head could have been taken with good intentions, the one referencing a hand job was “totally unacceptable, childish and disrespectful.”

“What happened in those pictures is now and should have been then unacceptable,” he wrote in an email to the News.

Tom Champney, a cell biology professor at University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine involved with teaching gross anatomy, called the photos “inappropriate,” and said that they would not be tolerated at the University of Miami.

Champney noted, however, that it was common for medical students to use humor as a way to ease their discomfort while taking their first-year anatomy lab. He wrote that he would be disappointed, but not surprised, to see similar photos in medical school yearbooks older than a few decades.

“I believe if you talked with physicians who had their anatomical training more than 30 years ago, you would (sadly) hear similar stories from medical schools around the country,” he wrote in an email to the News.

This is not the first time Yale’s School of Medicine has had to grapple with unsanctioned photos of donors. In February 2018, the Associated Press reported that two graduate students and a professor from the University of Connecticut took a photo of themselves with two severed human heads, which were donated for research purposes and used at a symposium held at Yale in 2017. The symposium had no affiliation to Yale’s anatomy program.

The School of Medicine organizes an annual “Service of Gratitude” event that brings students and families together to honor those who have donated their bodies to the University for dissection. Stewart said that students express their gratitude toward the donors’ sacrifices at the event.

“I think that feeling characterizes nearly all of the students,” he said.

In the hallways of its anatomy facilities, the medical school also displays artwork from numerous classes of students that honor those who donated their bodies to further students’ education.

The School of Medicine’s anatomy lab is held at the Anlyan Center.

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu