Anatomy Block

The iconic “Old Anatomy Block” – the end is nigh!!

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ndBy Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

In the words of the Greek Physician Hippocrates :

“Ars longa vita brevis” (learning the craft takes time and life is short).

How very true!!

 

For the readers who are unaware of the old Anatomy Block it is the large and impressive grey colonial building in Francis Place.  It lies behind the main premises of the Faculty of Medicine Colombo at Kynsey Road. This majestic building with tall gothic columns and ornate carvings stand as a sentinel paying homage to Dr Albert J Chalmers, the Registrar of the Ceylon Medical College from 1901-12. He helped to design and construct this fine edifice. The Anatomy Block was opened on the 3rd of November 1913 by the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Chalmers. The architecture could be described as Edwardian Baroque style. Despite its years and the grisly goings on behind its closed doors, the elegant facade retains its colonial personality and charm. The Old Anatomy Block is a fine tribute to the many who learnt the trade here and have proceeded to serve humanity, providing medical care all around the world.

My epic journey in medical education began at the tail end of 1962. I remember most vividly, as if it were yesterday, entering through the portals of that great grey building in Francis Place. Flushed with excitement, the aura and the occasion simply took my breath away. It inspired a lifelong professional career. This was affectionately called the “Block”. It is the oldest building in the Faculty of Medicine and student life began right here. I still recall so graphically being in a cavernous hall with rows of cadavers laid on marble slabs. It just seemed like the abode of the Grim Reaper!! We soon got accustomed to the pungent smell of the place which never left our noses. Within its concrete walls we dissected those human bodies, rather dispassionately. Tearing a body of a real person apart from head to toe despite its immersion in formalin still makes me shudder. Our youthful enthusiasm and our search for knowledge gave us some protection. As I write I’m amazed we could face this ordeal day after day for two long years. I couldn’t face that same task with that same detachment now. The life and times in that great institution have now entered the folklore of the Faculty of Medicine Colombo. We now remember our teachers and the friends who shared those years with great nostalgia.

While in the “Block” we learnt anatomy well and in such great detail. We were expected to know the minutiae and the small print. The regular tests we had in the form of weekly ‘signatures’ and termly ‘revisal’ generated a toxic culture. It must be said we were forced to learn the subject completely and thoroughly. As a practicing Diagnostic Radiologist this knowledge was essential to me for which I will remain forever grateful.

Away from the books, study and examinations, memories of the “Block” are many. Even in that challenging environment our youthful spirit never deserted us. They began with the infamous fresher’s rag. Then came the Law-Medical match followed by the Block Concert and the Block Night.  These events are intricately woven into the fabric of life in the Block and remain as treasured memories for many of us. Although these events occurred away from the iconic building, but they reflect those memorable years spent in that great institution.

Recently there was an email riding the ether that the Old Anatomy Block was to be demolished. I was surprised and dismayed to lose such an iconic building of our time. Prof. Sanath Lamabadusuriya promptly enquired from the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine who reassured him that the “Block” will not be demolished but will be restored to house the Faculty Museum and a Centre for Research, Development and Innovation. I am confident he will do whatever is necessary to preserve its historical content. This iconic monument to medical education has a long and distinguished history. I am so pleased it will not be reduced to clouds of dust and a pile of rubble.

The building has served us well for over a century. In that time much has changed in the teaching of anatomy. The difficulties in getting cadavers and its high financial cost have significantly contributed to the development of alternative teaching techniques. Web-based medical technology has resulted in the development of virtual dissection programs. These have been found to be a cost-effective way of teaching anatomy. They are now preferred to cadaveric dissection. The modern techniques do away with some of the emotional and ethical concerns. The debate to dissect or not to dissect still rages on. The teaching of anatomy has changed.  Hence, I do understand the issues which may have influenced the Dean and the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo to take a stand.

A centenary celebration was held for the Old Anatomy Block in 2013. It was wonderful to read through the souvenir and acknowledge the deep affection the former students have for this great institution. With the passage of years the sun and the rain and the atmospheric pollution have affected the structure of the building. A crack has appeared in a wall and some damage to the wooden floor has been found. It is heartening to know that the architectural conservation division of the department of archaeology has been consulted.

To conserve our medical history, it is important to broaden the discussion. The General Hospital in Colombo now the National Hospital was established in 1864. The associated Medical School was founded in 1870. Both these institutions have old buildings that may not be fit for purpose anymore. Some may have fallen into disrepair from neglect, a lack of funds, and the weather. I hope there is greater consultation before sending in the bull dozers and excavators for demolition. It is wonderful to see the Victoria Memorial Eye hospital built in 1903 still being used and kept in good repair.

We as a country have done tremendously well to preserve our ancient heritage and archaeological remains. But the preservation of our more recent history appears to be less secure. I am unaware of the existence of a listing of historical buildings or a National Register for this purpose. Hence it is incumbent on the general public and the interested individuals to gather support, cajole, harass and make a noise about preserving our past.

“Heritage building” includes any building which requires conservation and preservation for historical, architectural or cultural purpose.

One way of acknowledging our history is by preserving historic buildings and structures.

Historic building preservation helps to remember a place or an institution and its interesting past. These old buildings are visual reminders of an area’s cultural heritage and the people that once played a key role in being part of it. Historical buildings are best adapted for reuse as architects are looking at ways to make these buildings more sustainable.

If we didn’t undertake historical building preservation, there would be nothing left of our history in architectural terms. Demolishing an old building could mean an important part of our history is gone forever. Many of the old buildings are a treasure trove in architectural terms that tell us something important about our historical past.

I do accept that in Sri Lanka we must do what is feasible and appropriate for our country.  It is however important to pick up from other countries how they deal with the common issues. In London space is precious and is at a premium. St Thomas’ hospital was established in 1100, Guys Hospital in 1720 and King’s College Hospital in 1840. All those hospitals have had many face lifts and extensions to accommodate new technology and more patients. The Medical Schools are closely connected to those hospitals. Whenever possible they have preserved the original façade of the old red brick buildings which have been included in the National Heritage List to be preserved for posterity. I wish we can preserve the façade of that iconic Anatomy Block and the other parts of historical interest like the old anatomy lecture hall built like a Greek style amphitheatre.

I am immensely grateful to Prof. Sanath Lamabadusuriya who brought this to my attention. We are fortunate to have a person of his calibre and wisdom. He is the current President of Colombo Medical School Alumni Association and is greatly respected by all. We are so pleased Sanath will take an interest in the progress of this process of refurbishment and restoration. I can rest assured he will deal with this project thoughtfully and with sensitivity.

The Golden era of anatomy in the Medical Faculty comes to an end as the Old Anatomy Block gives up being a place for human cadaveric dissections. It has served us well for over a hundred years. The building will stand as a tribute to the learned Professors and Lecturers who walked those hallowed precincts and taught anatomy to generations of students.  Their photos adorn the walls of the main hallway. Some had tempers that would terrify even the boldest. Their voices must still swirl in the ether of that great institution. Meanwhile, if you are ever in the neighbourhood, do wander around. That’s the closest you’ll ever get to soak up the atmosphere of an era that will soon disappear into oblivion.

6 thoughts on “Anatomy Block”

  1. Thanks Nihal for the trip down memory lane.The anatomy block must have many stories to tell about the cadavers and their student dissectors.! I wonder whether the dissecting manuals( Cunningham) from years ago are still in use.?I remember a version that was edited by Dr Sinnathamby when he was professor of anatomy in England , many years after he left Sri Lanka..Several authors of anatomy books come to mind from Buchanan and Gray to Harold Ellis and AJ Last.Frank Netter with his illustrations was nearly as good as the dissections.I had a preference for Last and Ellis’s Clinical Anatomy.
    The current trend is by learning anatomy from large screens on Gurneys with MRI scans of the human body with 3D capabilty whereby one can dissect the human body layer by layer with the multiple MRI scans in any axis required by the learner.This must be even better than the actual dissection.With the closing of the anatomy block and the new learning modules, there will a dearth of cheap human skeletons previously available from the staff at Kanatte.!

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    1. Eddie
      Thank you for your comment
      You have a most remarkable memory for those days in the block. I do recall those books and they are mostly used for reference. Students now learn what we would call basic essential anatomy. There was a girl in our batch who cycled to the Faculty. Someone took the bike into the Anatomy Block and placed a cadaver on the seat and kept it leaning on the wall. There was much laughter and also anger too. The culprit is still at large after 60 years.

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  2. ND Thanks for the post,
    This brings back many fond memories in the block. Who can forget the job of Muniandi who was in charge of the cadavers, stacked in vats filled with body fluids. I still remember few of the mnemonics that was helpful in getting through the dreaded sigs!

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    1. Sam
      Thank you for posting my article. Those were halcyon days and will always remain with us forever. You still remember Muniandi !! Oh those mnemonics – more naughty the better remembered. The latest is that this building will house a Medical Museum. We need one too. Just wonder if they have done away with dissections completely. How all this will pan out we will never know. Time will tell.

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  3. Thank you ND for the very interesting article about the Anatomy Block.

    I do remember walking into the dissecting room and seeing all the cadavers on Marble tables. I was taken aback for a moment. I saw the facial expressions of some of the young ladies of our batch. Pity I did not have a camera to capture expressions. Even if I did , perhaps I may have dropped the camera.

    Within a few hours into the dissections , we were all so engrossed with the task at hand of a proper dissection , were all more or less lying down on the cadavers with our eyes peeled on the bodies , our faces a few inches away from the dissection sights. Amazing how the human body can adopt to pleasant and unpleasant situations so quickly.

    Yes Muniyandi a nice pleasant souls who helped all of us. Who can forget him.

    Yes we have come a long way from those wonderful years at the Anatomy block. Thanks again ND for bringing back pleasant memories.

    Nisantha

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    1. Nisantha
      Thank you for those comments which I appreciate greatly. Yes, those Block days were tough with sigs every fortnight and revisals end of term learning obscure anatomical details much of which was lost when we crossed Kynsey Road for the clinical years. Most of our teachers were rather tough and pedantic wanting to educate us for our own welfare.
      The Block is going to be a Museum and we do need one. Gone are the days of emotionally challenging cadaveric dissections. Many of us however remember those days of long ago of Muniandi and the cadavers on marble blocks.
      The Faculty was our Temple of Wisdom. Our jagged path from the dissections in the Block to the ward classes and appointments across Kynsey Road, were not without pitfalls. We feel
      greatly privileged to have been taught by some remarkable teachers. The harsh environment taught us to focus under pressure and develop an analytical mind. It gave us an indomitable spirit for the rigours ahead. We remember them with much affection and gratitude. We thank them for their commitment to teaching. My abiding memory of those years are the long walks along those hospital corridors swinging a knee hammer and proudly wearing the stethoscope around the neck. There was an air of confidence and a touch of vanity which came from being a medical student. There are times I still pine for the bohemian life we enjoyed in the Faculty.

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