“Wow!” Student Jamie can’t hide his sense of wonder. During the practical, he gently holds a human spine in his hand and touches the small holes in the bones through which the blood vessels used to run. The spine he is working on has been used in Erasmus MC for more than 30 years. “It’s unbelievable how long the human body can stay in good condition when it’s been properly preserved”, he says.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Jamie is one of more than 30 Erasmus University College students who are attending their first Anatomy lecture at Erasmus MC today. Fifteen minutes before he and his fellow students enter the room, lecturer Tom Ruigrok checks whether the boxes with bones are complete in the cabinet at the back of the room.

A student assistant picks up a preserved human head. “You get used to this when you do it every day”, he responds to the serious look on the EM reporter’s face.

Lecture: Basic Human Anatomy, Monday 12.15 pm on the first floor of the Ee building of Erasmus MC

Lecturer: Tom Ruigrok

Subject: Spinal columns

Audience: In addition to two skeletons, a plastinated human head and four preserved bodies, there are 30 students from Erasmus University College. Some of them would like to progress to study Medicine.

Reason to follow the lecture: The fact that you can examine real skeletons and preserved bodies is reason enough. Plus, you need to wear a white doctor’s coat when you enter the room, so a Grey’s Anatomy vibe is guaranteed. 

“It smells a bit strange in here, doesn’t it?”, says one student to another when they walk into the room at ten past twelve. The other student nods and looks around. On the left-hand side of the room there are four dissection tables, holding preserved bodies with white sheets over them. By the wall, there is a long cupboard containing all kinds of specimens, bones and plastinated body parts.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Skeletal system

“Anatomy studies the shape and structure of the body and its parts”, says Tom Ruigrok to kick off the lecture. There are two ways of doing this: regional and systemic. Regional means that you only study certain parts, for example only the head or neck. With a systemic method, you examine the entire system of the body, for example the digestive tract or respiratory tract. “Today, we are studying skeletal system and working with spinal columns. In a few weeks, when we learn about muscles, we will be working on the preserved bodies”, says Ruigrok.

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He continues the lecture with an explanation of how the human body has evolved in comparison with other animal species. Student Warsan listens carefully. “It’s a good introduction to human anatomy. It goes without saying that you need to know this when you study medicine.”

Not far from Warsan, student Maaike is concentrating behind her laptop. Even though it’s the first lecture, she already knows the lecturer a little. She has previously attended Ruigrok’s lectures. “I think he’s a really good lecturer, he always explains everything very clearly and in detail”, she says. Student Barbara adds: “Another really good thing is that he gives the lecture step by step. So you get an explanation first, and only put it into practice in the second part.”

Curves in the spine

“Please be careful with the bones, they’re irreplaceable”, says the lecturer when the students start the practical after the break. Students work in groups to answer a series of questions. The first question: A human spine is not straight, but S-shaped. What might the function of these curves be? “For flexibility?”, wonders student Sofia. “That could be right. Can you imagine how difficult it would be if our spine were straight?”, responds Julie, another member of the group. “Perhaps also so that other organs have space in the body?”, adds student Shagnik.

Lecturer Ruigrok: “The kyphosis and lordosis, the curvatures in the spine, form a kind of spring. When you get up and then sit down again, it has suspension in it. If the vertebrae were stacked like blocks, you would get much more wear and tear. In short, the spine is S-shaped to make it less easily damaged.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema


Student Thom is delighted to be able to examine the spine. “Working with real bones helps me to better understand the subject matter and makes it clearer”, he says. “I can’t wait to dissect the brain.” Student Mo is also curious about dissection. “It’s exciting to work with preserved body parts. But the smaller it is, the less aware you are that it’s a preserved part of an actual human being.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

In contrast to her fellow students, student Via is not as enthusiastic about the whole thing. She is studying Life Science, so she won’t be progressing onto Medicine. “I was actually surprised that we were allowed to examine real bones and bodies. I mean, we’re just students, so I was expecting them to use a dummy for us.” Does she find the lecture interesting though? “Absolutely, but I have to admit that it’s hard to concentrate when you’re sitting next to preserved bodies”, she laughs.

Thanks to Jos van der Geest for the tour and for making this report possible.

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Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a lecture every month. Together they describe and depict how education is given, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.

EM is looking for the best, funniest or most interesting lectures at the EUR. Do you want us to visit your lecturer? Tip us at [email protected] .