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Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab Paperback – May 27, 2008

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143113666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143113669
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #195,540 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Though it never goes for the gross-out effect, this memoir is not for the squeamish. "You begin to learn to heal the living by dismantling the dead," says Montross, and though her recollections encompass all of her medical training, the narrative backbone of the story is her semester-long dissection of a human cadaver, from opening up the ribcage to removing the brain from the skull. Montross was a poet and writing teacher before she decided to become a doctor, and she peppers her account of the dismantling of her cadaver, Eve—so named because she has no belly button—with arresting imagery: to test the heart's semilunar valves ("little half-moons that work passively and without musculature"), she and another student take the organ to a sink and run tap water through it. Performing her own dissection leads Montross to explore the history of studying anatomy through corpses, which brings tantalizing detours to medieval Italian universities and saints' shrines. But she also recounts her earliest encounters with living patients, such as a heart-wrenching consultation with a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, who can communicate only by blinking. Her thoughtful meditations on balancing clinical detachment and emotional engagement will easily find a spot on the shortlist of great med school literature. (June 25)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"[Raudman's] tone, like Montross's writing, is often irreverent and dryly funny, without ever being disrespectful." ---AudioFile --This text refers to the MP3 CD edition.

More About the Author

Dr. Christine Montross is Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, and Co-director of the Medical Humanities and Bioethics Scholarly Concentration at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She is also a practicing inpatient psychiatrist. She completed medical school and residency training at Brown University, where she received the Isaac Ray Award in Psychiatry and the Martin B. Keller Outstanding Brown Psychiatry Resident Award.

She received her undergraduate degrees and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from the University of Michigan, where she also taught writing classes as a lecturer following graduation. She was born and raised in Indianapolis.

Dr. Montross has been named a 2010 MacColl Johnson fellow in Poetry, and the winner of the 2009 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Emerging Indiana Authors Award. She has had several poems published in literary journals, and her manuscript Embouchure was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. She has also written for many national publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, Good Housekeeping and O, The Oprah Magazine.

Dr. Montross's first book, Body of Work, was named an Editors' Choice by The New York Times and one of The Washington Post's best nonfiction books of 2007. While writing Body of Work, she traveled to anatomical theaters, sought out holy relics, and dissected three arms, a leg, and an entire human body. She and her partner, the playwright Deborah Salem Smith, live in Rhode Island with their children.

Customer Reviews

My Dentist recommended this book when I told him I wanted to go to medical school.
K. Guidry
Just as interesting is her intertwining of her own personal experience with human dissection with that of the history of dissection and procurement of cadavers.
The author, Dr. Christine Montross, writes well and often turns a beautifully crafted phrase that conveys the emotion of what she sees.
K. Smith

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, by Dr. Christine Montross, jumps out as something entirely predictable... what you would get if you crossed writers Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge) and Atul Gawande (Complications).

In other words, Montross writes with knowledge and determination, passion and persuasion, connection and compassion.

During her first year in medical school, her most important dissection partner was a deceased woman she named Eve. Whatever Eve did in life, in death she shaped Montross forever. Montross marveled at Eve's lack of a belly button, the bone dust Montross inhaled, the wonder of Eve's gift of herself. Eve morphed into a totally dissected person, and to the end, Montross would always consider her a person, not a thing, and not an abstraction.

This experience, along with vignettes from her rotations in medical school, are shared throughout the book. But Montross goes beyond that, delving into the history of anatomy, of human dissection, and of our linkage of what remains after we die with our spiritual connections. There's a reason saints were delivered in many pieces to places of worship, that medical students resorted to grave robbery, and that Thai medical students respect their dissection experiences throughout their career.

Montross weaves her anatomy experiences with her own life and relationship. There is a sensitivity here that makes you want to choose her as your own physician. By golly, if I am brain dead, I want Dr. Montross to check my pain reflexes! Finally, there are a number of books about that first year experience in medical school, and they all share the spirit of discovery in anatomy. This one goes where others have not, and reflects Montross's background as a teacher of English and a poet... observations of anatomy through the MFA lens.

This is a great book to give that person who yearns to follow her into the healing professions.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Robert A. Warren on August 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A first-year medical student remembers with clarity and thoughtfulness one of the great emotional traumas of medical school, the semester-long process of dissecting a cadaver. This could read like a recital of atrocity, or worse. Instead, without muting the emotional trauma that comes with disassembling every square inch of a human body, Dr. Montross focuses on her growing emotional bond with 'Eve.' The result is a remarkable symbiosis between the living student and her deceased 'instructor.' The author's style is direct, even confrontational at times; this isn't for the squeamish or faint of heart. But Montross never fails to treat her subject with respect and dignity, even honor. It is a devastatingly dense relationship within the stifling confines of the gross anatomy lab. But as the author makes clear, it is absolutely necessary for a young doctor's training. Here, the medical student/author emotionally dissects herself while reducing 'her' cadaver to, well, nothing. The process, however gory it might sound, is beautiful, revealing - literally and figuratively - and results is great empathy between 'physician' and 'patient.' As one destroys the other in her search for knowledge, they bond in a way that can only be described as beautiful and tender. This book gives the reader who is open to it an altogether different understanding of doctors and the medical profession. The profession is the better for Dr. Montross's explanation of the process by which she became a doctor.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By James S. Wicoff on July 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Just finished this book. Had to stop several times because of memories of my medical school and residency years. Cried some, laughed some and nodded my head often. What I liked was that this was not simply a memoir , but an intriguing look at medical history and practices in other countries. I am a child psychiatrist and part time poet, so I identified on many levels. I was the reader at our table-2 prospective surgeons took over the dissection. The emotions of becoming a doctor are wonderfully described and I will recommend it to fellow physicians and prospective ones alike. Beautifully done.
Jim Wicoff m.d.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Lynn Harnett VINE VOICE on August 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
First year med students learn anatomy by spending a semester, 14 hours a week, dissecting a cadaver. Issues of cultural taboo, squeamishness and professionalism necessarily arise. Montross, who, at 28, had already been a poet and a teacher, chooses this profound experience as the backbone of her memoir on becoming a doctor.

Older than most of her classmates, she has a stable, happy relationship and a wider, more mature perspective than, say, gung-ho Raj, fresh from college, who can't wait to start cutting. Montross herself is much more ambivalent and approaches her team's corpse with curiosity about its life.

With their first view of her, their cadaver furnishes her own name - Eve. The old woman has no belly button! Montross takes us through her team of four's first cuts - the trepidation, ambivalence, feelings of inadequacy and amazement. She also tells us how it feels to put scalpel to embalmed flesh, to saw through bones and softer tissue.

"The muscle and cartilage are much easier to saw, but, as a result, doing so lacks the distraction that effort affords. The tissue spins off the blade in small bits, which look like tiny roots or fingernail clippings."

Graphic descriptions of the layers of flesh and muscle, the intricate and ingenious, but messy and confusing circulation system, the distinct and functional organs, fascinate and repel. Montross describes the process of normal decay after death - but the medical cadavers could remain at room temperature for 20 years without further decay.

Taking periodic breaks, she explores the history of medical cadavers: body snatchers and religious taboos, the early scientists who donated their own bodies, and the condemned prisoners donated by the state.
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