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dissected head

Da Vinciís heir

A modern atlas of the human body

Roberta Corson describes her fun-loving father, who happened to dissect cadavers for a living, as a man who treasured life.

“He would hold up his hand and look at it with awe,” says Corson, 64, who lives in Saratoga. “He’d say, ‘I know every bone, every muscle, every nerve. I know how it works, but it’s still a great mystery.’ ”

It was this deep sense of wonder at the mystery of life combined with a passion to uncover its secrets that sent David Bassett, MD — expert anatomist and dissection artist — on a one-of-a-kind journey into the hidden depths of the human body. Working alone night after night in an anatomy lab on the Stanford campus, the gregarious Bassett, who loved fishing and playing with his kids, spent 17 years exploring cadavers — uncovering the cobwebs of blood vessels clustered around the spinal column, slicing through the intricacies of the human brain, unveiling nodes in the heart. He returned from his adventure with one of the most breathtaking photographic collections of human dissection ever created.

“It’s simply the most beautiful and complete dissection collection in existence,” says its former curator, Robert Chase, MD, the Emile Holman Professor of Surgery, Emeritus, at Stanford.

It also places Bassett on the list of history’s great anatomists, next to notables like the 16th century’s Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern human anatomy, and the 19th century’s Henry Gray, author of the classic textbook Gray’s Anatomy.

But while those guys had to depend on artists to depict their dissection work, Bassett's collection is professionally photographed, viewable in 3-D. And it’s online.

The public got a sneak preview of sorts this summer, when the school posted a small selection of the photographs on the image-hosting Web site flickr. As of January, the site had recorded 180,000 people signing on to view them. Then in November, the School of Medicine made the entire collection available for free online viewing.

Courtesy of Robert Chase
David Bassett and William Gruber position a jawbone to be photographed
David Bassett, left, and William Gruber position a jawbone to be photographed. The camera produced two images taken from slightly different angles for each shot.

Working together with his partner, photographer William Gruber, the inventor of the View-Master, the two men created the 24-volume Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy complete with meticulous labels and high-resolution 3-D photographs. The 50-year-old collection of 1,547 photographs of Bassett’s dissections takes the viewer swimming through the human body. Across the spinal cord, over the landscape of the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, through the lymphatic system — every detail is exposed.

“There will never be another collection like it,” says Paul Brown, DDS, a consulting associate professor of anatomy who founded a private company, eHuman, that offers access to some of the images, with added highlighting, labeling and audio narration for a small fee. Says Brown: “The number of man-hours spent cataloging each photograph, nobody’s ever going to do it.”

The question is, why did Bassett? The collection never made him rich, or famous. It took him away from his much-beloved family. It never brought him academic success. In fact, his family believes exposure to the dissection chemicals for so many years may have contributed to his early death, at the age of 52, shortly after completing the enormous project. Like many dissection artists, he often set aside his rubber gloves to complete the intricate work.

But for Bassett, once the mascot of the Stanford band, rush chairman of his fraternity, the nights spent carving up corpses was the “great work of his life.”

“What made Leonardo da Vinci paint?” says Sidney Raffel, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology, who taught in a nearby classroom for years and used to wander over to watch his colleague at work. “He was good at it. He had some sort of innate ability and the desire to do it.”

How it began

Bassett was always good with his hands. His daughter remembers him as both a family man and a craftsman, a perfectionist about everything he did, even the mundane work around the house, from painting a kitchen wall to constructing a wooden table. He built a boat with his son, crafted fine furniture using only hand tools. His patience and persistence made him a natural fisherman. He had a knack with a knife.

“He was so skilled with his hands,” says Corson, a retired United Methodist minister and clinical psychologist. “He was a master woodworker. He could have been a housepainter. He could have been a carpenter.”

But Bassett chose medicine.

The son of a speech and drama professor at Stanford University, Bassett grew up in a faculty home on the Stanford campus. He graduated from Stanford University and the Stanford Medical School in 1938, making a name for himself along the way with his spectacular dissections. He considered becoming a surgeon, then focused on research after graduation — working in a lab at Harvard for a while — but eventually found his niche in teaching anatomy and the study of the human body as an assistant professor of anatomy back at Stanford.

Bassett Collection photograph courtesy of Lane Medical Archives
The shoulder joint, opened from behind
The shoulder joint, opened from behind. The view shows how the smooth-cartilage-covered head of the arm bone fits into the socket of the scapula.

During his clinical rotations as a medical student, he met and married Lucile Fallon, a nurse at Lane Hospital. Their first date was a rush party at Bassett’s fraternity. Over the years, four children were born.

“He was a great father,” Corson says. “He loved puns, jokes, songs. In the summer when the crickets would come out, I’d be in bed, he’d come and get me. He’d carry me barefoot and on his back. Holding flashlights, we’d follow the sound of the crickets until we found them.”

Known for his good humor and perpetual smile, Corson remembers hearing of her father losing his temper only once.

“One year his anatomy students put flags in their cadavers around the Fourth of July. He was so angry. He respected those bodies and he demanded the same respect from everybody in his labs.”


It was Bassett’s well-known genius for dissection that would eventually attract the attention of Gruber in 1948 and set up their long collaboration. Gruber, an organ and piano maker from Munich in his earlier career, went on to invent the View-Master, also known as a stereoscope, which first caught on as an alternative to picture postcards for viewing tourist attractions.

As the chief research engineer for Sawyer’s, the firm that manufactured his stereoscope, Gruber was somewhat freed up to focus on his personal interest in photographing the inner workings of the human body. He had earlier abandoned a similar project at the University of California.

In her unpublished memoir, Bassett’s late wife, Lucile, describes the first failed project as an attempt “to dissect on unembalmed bodies of prisoners who had been executed. The result was a bloody mess.”

The history of dissection collections is known to be somewhat gruesome. Vesalius broke long-held taboos against dissecting human bodies, forced to steal corpses from graveyards during the night and dissecting them secretly, alone in his room at home. By the 19th century, Gray’s dissections were at least legal, but he worked on unclaimed bodies from workhouses and hospital mortuaries.

In the 20th century, cadaver dissection was both legal and sanctioned by the people who donated their bodies to science. The cadavers used in the Bassett collection were donated to the Stanford anatomy department.

Gruber found what he was looking for in Bassett, who had developed special techniques for the preservation of bodies for dissection. Bassett flushed the cadaver’s vessels with saline and devised an embalming fluid that would retain the near normal color of the tissue. He also used red- and blue-colored latex to highlight parts of the dissections. The results were bodies that were ready for dissection in remarkably well-preserved condition.

And thus began the nightly odyssey to his lab to prepare the dissections for Gruber’s camera.

“He would come home from teaching,” Corson remembers. “We’d eat dinner together. He’d lie down for maybe a 10-minute power nap, play with us for a while, then head back to the lab every night of the week.” Eventually his wife, beginning to resent “the long, lonely evenings,” hired a babysitter for Thursday nights so the couple could have “date night” at the lab.

Bassett Collection photograph courtesy of Lane Medical Archives
the anterior chamber, iris, ciliary body and outer surface of the choroid
The sclera and cornea have been cut away on the side of a right eye to display the anterior chamber, iris, ciliary body and outer surface of the choroid.

Lucile talked while Dave dissected.

“I used to go over to his lab to watch sometimes,” says Raffel, 97, who still lives on campus, and remembers Bassett’s skills as a fisherman as well as a dissection artist, patience and meticulousness being key for both pursuits. “Dave was dissecting out little nerves and nerve endings that nobody had ever seen before. My heavens.”

He used just two bodies for the entire central nervous system, one male, one female, an incredible feat of accuracy in dissection, says Chase, who was chair of surgery when Bassett was on the anatomy faculty. Because Bassett wanted no labels cluttering the photos, he hired medical illustrators, three women, to make tracings of the photographs with labels that were used as overlays.

Every four to six weeks, Gruber would arrive from Oregon for a three-day visit, staying with the Bassetts. Working late into the night, he’d photograph in 3-D the 30 to 50 dissections prepared by Bassett. Bassett pulled back the tissues with clamps to reveal the dissections, Gruber took the shots, and Bassett moved on with his next dissection. As Bassett dissected deeper and deeper into the bodies, the collection grew.

“Our lives seemed to center around these visits,” Lucile wrote.

Success

In March 1951, Bassett took three test booklets and six View-Master stereoscopes to the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting in Detroit. A line “through the door and down the hall formed to get a glimpse of the unusual anatomical views,” writes Chase in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy in 1992.

Bassett Collection photograph courtesy of Lane Medical Archives
the dura and dura mater
On the right, the dura mater, which covers the brain, is visible. On the left, the dura has been cut away, revealing the cerebral hemisphere and cerebellum.

But it wasn’t until 1962 that the entire collection was complete, 25 volumes packed with literally thousands of photos and diagrams and hundreds of View-Master reels.

“That was a joyful day,” Corson says. “I came home from school and there it was, sitting on the bookshelf all by itself.”

Dec. 15, 1962, Gruber wrote a letter to Bassett congratulating him on the completion of the work:

“No one outside of Lucile and myself will ever know what a torturous 10 years of slavery you went through to reach the top. Let me add my prayer and hope that you will not have to die to earn your just recognition. Things should really begin to pop from now on.”


Initially, the collection sold well and the images soon became a much-used educational resource for medical schools, but Bassett was frustrated with the low level of promotion by the publishers, and it brought little money to the family, Corson says.

“Of course, he didn’t do it for the money,” she adds.

After her husband’s death, Lucile Bassett was concerned by the lack of publicity for the collection, and surprised when the publisher discontinued its production in the late 1960s. She acquired the collection from Sawyer’s in the 1980s and with the help of Chase at Stanford the collection came back into some use.

In 1997, the family donated the collection to Stanford University, along with the rights to future publication. Chase encouraged this transfer and for many years promoted its adoption into new media. It has come back into use by medical students and professors. Today, Bassett images can be found in many medical school textbooks.

But the collection never brought Bassett the recognition he deserved while he was still alive, Chase says, primarily because of changing values within the scientific community. During the years that Bassett worked on the collection, scientific research at a molecular level was growing in prestige while human gross anatomy as a scientific discipline was declining.

Bassett left Stanford in 1959 for a position as professor and director of gross anatomy at the University of Washington School of Medicine doubling his salary. The dissections were within a year of completion, so he arranged with Stanford to return every month to finish the work on the bodies, which remained there.

Bassett Collection photograph courtesy of Lane Medical Archives
the pelvic bones
The pelvic bones, split through the vertebral column and sacrum.


He loved Seattle. He loved hiking in the mountains. But within a year or two, his health began to fail.

“Mr. Gruber’s premonition seemed almost prophetic. Within a couple of years, I began to see a change in Dave,” Lucile wrote in her memoirs. “He had to stop and look at the scenery when he went on hikes, when in fact, he was out of breath. … It’s difficult not to feel regret and resentment for the long years of Dave’s life that were dedicated to the Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy.”

Corson says the family believes the formaldehyde that her father worked with daily in his dissections contributed to his death from rare biochemical diseases that caused his heart, lungs and other organs to thicken.

“I always wondered whether the chemicals caused his death,” Corson says. “… he couldn’t breathe that last year of his life.”

Bassett died in 1966. He never completed his goal of producing an inexpensive and more accessible student edition of his work. The modern-day online versions of the collection would have thrilled her father, Corson says. He wanted his work to be available to everyone. Someday she’d like to see it in its 3-D version online.

“My father lived before all this technology. He would have loved it. His hope was that the collection would just be accessible to people — useful for surgeons, teachers and students.”

He was a man who treasured all life, she says. He wanted to share its mysteries with the world.

“He had a sense of great privilege to be able to work in the depths of the body. The wonder of it.”

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The right hand, revealing tendons, blood vessels and nerves
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A conversation with
David Bassett’s daughter

Listen to an interview with Roberta Corson.

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View a slideshow of selected images from the Bassett collection. View entire collection...

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