Teach yourself anatomy

Dr Thomas A Quilliam, who died in 2008, taught me general human anatomy during my first year as a dental student at University College London (‘UCL’). His teaching method was quite unlike anything I had encountered before.

Quilliam

At our first meeting with him, Quilliam told us that as he was lazy, he preferred the students to give the lectures whilst he sat and listened at the back of the lecture theatre. He was not kidding, because this is exactly what happened.

We had anatomy ‘lectures’ five days a week and did dissections of a human cadaver on several afternoons. Each week, several students were assigned particular topics chosen from the syllabus. Each student was required to compose a twenty-minute talk on his or her topic, as well as designing simple diagrams, which could be drawn quickly on examination scripts, to illustrate it. For example, I can remember being asked to talk about the lymphatic drainage of the mammary glands. You might well wonder whether this was ever any use during my 35 years in dental practice. I am not sure that it was.

At each class in the lecture theatre, three students gave their presentations. Before that, Quilliam would treat us to short extracts from (usually) American medical education films. I can remember one with the thrilling title “The surgical anatomy of the kidney”. We would watch the first few minutes, before Quilliam switched off the projector. Then, each of the three students who had prepared for that day, gave their presentations. Most students, even the shyest in the class, did a good job, and made useful drawings and diagrams. Some enterprising students even prepared informative models of the anatomical structure they were describing. Every now and then, Quilliam, who sat at the back of the banked seats in the lecture theatre, used to ask a question to clarify what the speaker was saying. If the student answered “maybe” or “perhaps”, Quilliam would say: “That’s a typical University College answer.” Actually, it was. When I was studying physiology at UCL, we were taught to question everything and be reserved about stating that something was a certain fact.

QUILL

There were 50 students in my year. In all, we must have had at least 150 hours of ‘lecture’ sessions. As three students gave talks each session, this meant that everyone on the course had to prepare about nine topics from the syllabus. This ensured that everyone was likely to encounter at least one of his or her own topics in the final written or viva-voce examination.

You might be thinking that Quilliam really was a bit lazy, but you would be wrong. What his method achieved was very clever, and an important preparation for the clinical environment. Not only did his method avoid hours of having to listen to the same person giving the same lectures that he might have given year after year, but it also taught us to communicate ideas. Quilliam’s method of making us, the students, give presentations was a good training in the art of presenting unfamiliar topics clearly and comprehensibly. In dentistry, especially nowadays (and even when I entered practice), patients like to be kept informed about the nature of their problems and how they can be resolved.

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