As a biology teacher part of my job is to “perform” dissections. I use the word perform because it is indeed a performance. Standing centre stage with curious fun-loving young audience having fun every time I draw a parallel between the specimen in my hand and the diagram in their textbooks.
I remember my first mammalian dissection – a mouse. A tiny white furry thing growing in our lab, along with several others. It was in this cage that was made of a wire mesh. We used to feed it with carrots and other tidbits. And then one day we had to dissect it. I still remember the wave of nausea that clenched my gut. We opened the cage, and one escaped. We ran around – half of us trying to escape from its scurrying across our feet, and a couple of them trying to actually catch it. When we finally did catch it, we put it into a glass jar along with a cotton ball dipped in chloroform. When all forms of visible movements in the body came to a halt, we took it onto the dissection tray, pinned it onto the wax and slit through its body. It then shuddered, its blood spilled all over, and the nausea in my gut grew even more. Two hours of pulling and prodding -we finally took out the bone, extracted the marrow- all we wanted were the cells in them to observe chromosomes. Two days of experimentation and we finally saw them- the chromosomes of Mus musculus. All feelings of nausea and revulsion were lost. The exhilaration I felt at that point was beyond description. It was the first time I was seeing animal chromosomes. And at that moment it was all worth it.
Later of course we were informed that what we observed weren’t chromosomes at all. It was bacteria- our sample was contaminated. Our procedure was all wrong. Whatever the case, the process emboldened me. I am now able to dissect any animal with steady hands.
But even if I can, I am not a huge fan of dissections. It is immoral I agree, but absolutely inevitable, if one wants to understand the working of a biological system – A necessary Evil!
Why necessary- you would know if the medical system has ever been able to save you or someone you loved, at a time of need. The knowledge of the doctor who treated the condition or the medicines that we devoured during those days, all comes from extensive research. Research that involved dissecting animals, using them as laboratory guinea pigs, and sacrificing their lives to enhance our understanding. Does the cause justify the means? I am not one to comment. But I do know for a fact that if I were to choose between my life and that of a couple of mice- I would choose mine.
Today we have animal rights activists overplaying rather than being reasonable. Would these people agree to be the first to try a newly developed cancer drug on them – never tested on any animal? I wonder for all their concern should the entire discipline of medical research be discontinued for lack of testing. I have no answers, but for those who agree that no learning is complete without hands on practical experience I must say the same is true for biology too.
P.S. We did not give up on those mouse chromosomes. We had to sacrifice around 3-4 of them before we finally saw those chromosomes. Trust me. It was all worth it!
– Savitha Sekhar