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October 6, 2000
Volume 38, No. 4


A Slice of Life
Iowa lowers barriers to learning for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students

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A Slice of Life

Cross section of human body on the web
Most of us will never need to distinguish between our supraspinous ligament and our costotransverse ligament. But we hope that our surgeon or radiologist knows the difference.

From his more than 43 years of teaching, Emeritus Professor Ronald Bergman understands just how much anatomic information must be mastered by students before they begin their practice of medicine. And, when you consider the thousands of named parts and regions in the human body, it’s no surprise that practicing physicians—and even retired anatomy professors—have to look up a thing or two now and then.

Bergman and a team of colleagues have made that search easier and nearly universal by publishing a complete cross section of the human body on the web. Their electronic anatomy textbook can be found on the Virtual Hospital web site at
. Created in 1992, the Virtual Hospital ( is a digital health sciences library.

Bergman’s team prepared donated bodies by freezing them solid and sawing them into thin 1-cm slices, starting with slices across the top of the head and working down through the trunk and limbs all the way to the feet. Each cross section was photographed and meticulously labeled to show the relationships of various tissues and organs in a view that resembles the perspectives possible in certain radiologic procedures, such as CT scans and MRIs.

Lessons from Leonardo
"Leonardo da Vinci and others of his time knew the value of cutting the body into cross sections to learn the intricacies of anatomy," Bergman says. "A classic book published in 1911 uses tracings of cross sections to show the detail available through this method of dissection. When CT scans and MR imaging began to be used widely 20 years ago, these classic cross sections were what radiologists turned to for interpreting what they were viewing on film."

Bergman’s team—which included Adel K. Afifi, professor of pediatrics, neurology, and anatomy; Jean Y. Jew, professor of anatomy and cell biology; and Paul C. Reimann, medical photographer—originally published its work as a book about 10 years ago, but the publisher abandoned the project after a limited first edition.

"A lot of people would call me and ask about the text and where they could get a copy," Bergman says. "When I saw the kinds of medical texts being published on the Virtual Hospital site, I knew this would be an ideal thing to do. In the first three months it was on-line, the text averaged just under 40,000 hits a month. That’s a lot of interest, and people are continuing to discover that it’s there."

Virtual publishing
Bergman’s cross-sectional anatomy is one of three anatomy texts that he is publishing on the Virtual Hospital site. Michael D’Alessandro, Virtual Hospital director and associate professor of radiology, is pleased that the digital library can cover the spectrum of anatomy resources by featuring, in addition to the cross-sectional anatomy, Bergman’s text on microanatomy plus his magnum opus, an encyclopedia of human anatomic variations.

"Something that Dr. Bergman impressed on me as a resident," D’Alessandro says, "is that there is no ‘normal’ in anatomy. Each of us is different. He contends that doctors should be taught the spectrum of anatomic variation, and his encyclopedia of those variations—organized by organ system—is truly one of a kind on the web.

"As physicians and scholars, whatever we publish is our legacy, and whomever we teach and care for are also part of that legacy," D’Alessandro says. "When you take resources like these and turn them into a tool that provides physicians with high-quality information just a click or two away, the number of people you can influence increases immensely."

Article by Greg Johnson


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