Westminster Cadaver Program Offers Unique Opportunity 


Cadaver Class with Dr. Dawn HollidayA group of young people in white lab coats huddle around a laboratory table in the Coulter Science Center intent on the work at hand.  One of the students maneuvers the delicate instrument of incision, describing to the rest of the class what has been revealed.  A program considered quite unique to Westminster College is in session—the cadaver program.

Established in 2005 through a Biology Department initiative and the generous donations of time, money, and equipment from past and present members of the Westminster Board of Trustees, the Westminster cadaver program is the first of its kind to be offered at an institution of its size and stature.

What makes the Westminster program so unique is that unlike most undergraduate programs where all cadaveric dissection is conducted by the instructor while the class observes, Westminster students perform all dissection duties themselves.

“Students interested in Pre-Med, or really any health-related professions, are always impressed with our cadaver program,” says Kelle Silvey, Westminster Director of Admissions.  “Students tell us that to have this kind of personalized, hands-on experience as an undergraduate is what sets us apart from other programs—and is exactly what they want to better prepare them for the next level.  We are fortunate to have such a well-established program where students actually get to do the work—and not just watch it being done.”

The beginning class of 32-40 students, Bio 203 Human Anatomy, is basically full of juniors and seniors with an occasional fortunate sophomore because class is filled on a first-come, first-served basis.  Students are expected to learn anatomy through the use of traditional models, radiographic images, and hands-on cadaveric dissection.  Each week, two of the four lab groups have the opportunity to dissect.  The following week, one of the groups provides a teaching demonstration of the structures dissected to the other students.  Although dissecting every other week, students have access to the cadaver for study five days a week.  They are instructed to use the same gross anatomy dissectors used by medical students, but receive individualized attention and help from Dr. Dawn Holliday, who is in charge of the program; teaching assistants, and students in the advanced class.

Cadaver Class at Westminster CollegeTo be eligible for the advanced class, Bio 415 Gross Anatomy, students must have earned an “A” in the basic class, submit an application, and be selected for the course by the members of the Biology faculty.  The up to six students enrolled in this class receive a single cadaver to dissect over the course of the semester.  These students perform more difficult dissections and as they dissect, they note and measure any anomalies they discover and are encouraged to use histological techniques.  During the last four weeks of class, students complete a prosection of a specific area of interest.  For example, an obstetrics student might choose to concentrate on the female pelvis.  In addition, they participate in a weekly journal club, meeting as a class to discuss current, anatomy-based scientific literature.

“I see the cadavers as a gift and it is my duty to make sure all of the students get the most out of these gifts,” says Dr. Dawn Holliday, Assistant Professor of Biology.

Dr. Holliday also places special emphasis on respect for the anatomical donor and the ethical responsibilities involved.  At the end of the semester, students meet in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury on campus for a Gift of Body Donor Memorial Service.  The entire college community is invited to the service.  Rev. Jamie Haskins, College Chaplain, offers a benediction, Dr. Holliday says a few words about the selfless and giving acts of the donors, and the students offer their reflections.

Dr. Holliday has a strong relationship with the anatomy faculty at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and will take the advanced students to the University for the second year in a row to participate in anatomy lab side-by-side with the first year medical students there. Through this experience, Westminster students can see anatomical variation by examining the over 20 cadavers there, get a better sense of what it is like to be a medical student, and interact with the anatomy faculty and medical students at the University.

“Working two years with a cadaver as an undergraduate has helped me become a very competitive medical school applicant and more confident in my independent learning abilities,” says Misty Todd, Westminster Class of 2013.

Obviously, this remarkable experience does provide a valuable edge for those planning on attending medical school.  Out of last year’s five students in the advanced class, one has matriculated at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, one is currently employed and working on applications to medical school, one decided to pursue graduate school, and the other two are current seniors at Westminster.

Dr. Holliday also reaches out to area high school students who might be interested in pursuing a medical career.  Groups of high school students can arrange an anatomy demonstration by contacting Dr. Holliday or the Westminster Office of Enrollment Services.  Last year, two groups of high school students took advantage of the opportunity.

“Having the opportunity to learn through cadaveric dissection as an undergraduate student is unique and challenging as well as incredibly fascinating,” says Kristen Fisher, Class of 2014.  “This experience has not only prepared me for my future medical career, but has instilled in me a desire to give back to the field that has been the inspiration for my life by some day donating my body to science.”

Student reactions such as this one confirm the cadaver program fits beautifully into what is expected at Westminster—students receive a challenging and unique academic experience that is both academically stimulating and practical in nature…one that offers them the leadership skills and opportunities for personal growth that will enable them to be highly successful upon graduation.  Some of the renowned surgeons and prominent medical researchers of the future may be receiving their start through this Westminster program.

During the Cadaver ClassOne of last year’s graduates, Rachel Backes, had her life transformed by a trip to the cadaver lab.  As she describes it, “As a freshman enrolled in a non-major biology course, my decision to change my major from Education to Biology happened in an instant when Dr. Mike Amspoker took the class up to the cadaver lab.  Standing there in front of a cadaver on a table, with a human heart in my hands, might make you turn the other way, but it is easily one of my favorite experiences at Westminster.  I wanted nothing more than to stay longer and learn more.  And so I did.  Dr. Amspoker jumped at the opportunity to invite me into the biology department, and just like that, I changed my major and never looked back.”

The Westminster cadaver program is obviously a life-changing experience for those fortunate enough to be enrolled…the kind of life-changing experience that everyone should find in a college education.