Cadaver Lab

As with the insects, I find working from the actual specimen to be the way to get the best results.  I have been talking with Laura Friedman, our exhibits designer about how the insects will be mounted.  Laura asked me for a projection of the size and shape of the finished models so she can design the cases for them.  It forced me to think about what the bases would look like for the models.  Early on, we decided the models would look best if they were on life-like looking skin at the appropriate scale.  This meant that I would need to have an idea what the skin looks like under the microscope and  it presented some new questions: What does scalp, pubic, and cat skin look like?  How many hairs emerge from each?  Do the hairs emerge individually or in pairs?  Are there any differences in the shape of the hairs in each type?  To answer these questions I wondered if I could get actual skin samples from the medical school.

I dissected cadavers for a full academic year with the first year medical students during graduate school in medical illustration.  When I came to Yale, I went to the anatomy labs every year to dissect the face and collect data for the work I do on sculptural reconstruction of the face on fossil or human skulls.  I have not dissected for, at least ten years, but I thought now might be a good time to renew my contacts in the Yale Anatomy Department.  I contacted Larry Rizzolo who agreed, after some amusement with the request, to provide me with small skin samples from the scalp and pubic areas of a human cadaver.

When I arrived in the Anatomy Department, Larry took me directly to the lab.  The dissecting lab has a distinct odor of formalin.  In every lab I have been in, the whole room including tables, stools, and countertops have an oily smear of body fat and formalin.  It’s inevitable when you enter, that you will walk away with the smell that can linger for days.  We found a table that was mostly clear for me to work on.  While Larry went to get a microscope, I cleaned the table as well as possible and I placed my 16″ X 16″ clay tablet on it.   I find taking “sculptural” notes gives me the best recall rather than making drawings .  Larry brought the microscope and the dissecting tools.  We found a female cadaver and Larry used scissors to cut away a small section of the hair close to the scalp.  He then took out a razor sharp circular punch tool to excise 1/4″ diameter “plug” of skin.  Within 5 minutes I had  small sample of scalp skin and pubic skin under the microscope.

What we saw was a surprise to both of us.  The scalp skin has low relief, but very distinctive lines radiating from hairs and throughout the skin.  The hairs are irregularly spaced with most emerging alone, but there are pairs that sometimes emerge very close together.  A hair with color is translucent and grey hair looks like glass.  The pores that the hairs emerge from are larger than the hair itself.

The pubic skin and hair is distinctive.  It has a lot of relief, much more than the scalp.  There are more lines that are deeper and the surface is pillowed and pebbly.  It appears there is a layer of subcutaneous fat that does much to form the surface.  The hair, in cross-section, is not circular.  It appears that on some, the sides are flattened.  The hair was also very black and not translucent.

My recreation of pubic skin under the microscope (hair is represented by six small cylinders of clay)

I have called my vet to see if I can get the same kind of skin sample from a cat cadaver.  Stay tuned!

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