What does formaldehyde do?
A reflection on gross anatomy
Based loosely on my speech for a cadaver thanksgiving ceremony, this article reflects on the role of formaldehyde in the anatomy laboratory and on dead bodies. Why formaldehyde? Because beyond its horrific smell and toxicity, this simple molecule presents an opportunity for reflection on the fixation process and on the complex lessons to be learnt beyond the anatomy lab.
What does formaldehyde do? It repulses, burns the nostrils, causes the occasional paraesthesia of the digits even through two pairs of gloves, and apparently causes cancer if drunk. But what else does it do? It turns a human being into a cadaver by changing the colour, consistency, and texture of a human body through chemical fixing. But the fixing process does not fix the fact that the person is dead, and no one understands this better than the medical student on the first day of dissection. The cadavers on display in