Beneath the skin of TV’s first human dissection

Blood, guts and plenty of naked flesh. Anatomy for Beginners had all the ingredients of a standard late night TV show, but according to Professor John Lee, such a characterisation is at best unfair, at worst ignorant…

Fresh from his first television role on the ground-breaking series Anatomy for Beginners, Hull-York pathologist Professor John Lee tells Clive Crouch why he thinks the critics are dredging up dead arguments.

Blood, guts and plenty of naked flesh. Anatomy for Beginners had all the ingredients of a standard late night TV show, but according to Professor John Lee, such a characterisation is at best unfair, at worst ignorant. True, the warnings were repeated ad nauseum: ‘This show contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.’ Yet the series of televised dissections, which the Hull-York Medical School pathologist co-presented, had a genuine purpose – and he feels, attracted some serious interest.

“It was very intensive”, he says, talking on the phone from the labs at Rotherham Hospital. “We shot the four programmes on four consecutive days. It was all done without a script and without an autocue, so basically we worked out a running order and then delivered a real lecture demonstration in front of an audience.”

Lee provided a commentary whilst his colleague, the so-called ‘controversial’ German anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens, conducted a number of dissections to investigate the systems of the body: Movement, circulation, digestion and reproduction. Mixed in with this were images, preserved body parts and live models, on whose skin the organs were drawn. “It had to go right on the day. Once you’ve started you can’t go back.” Indeed, the set-up impressed a Hollywood director’s wife watching in the studio, who told participants she’d never seen a project of similar ambition shot on such a tight schedule.

Having trained as a hospital doctor, Lee specialised in pathology – the study of diseased tissues – in 1990. Now a consultant for the NHS, he also lectures Hull-York medical students. He got involved in the show after working on Europe’s first televised autopsy, conducted by von Hagens two years ago. He was subsequently invited back by producers to co-present Anatomy for Beginners. The series, filmed late last year, has just finished its first airing on Channel 4.

I tell Lee I found the programmes intriguing, but stomach churning, and wonder how he copes on a day-to-day basis. “The shock horror element of ‘Oh my God, they’re doing a dissection’ is always there to start with, but like everything else you get used to it”, he remarks. There can’t be much choice, with some pathologists doing up to 300 post-mortems a year, even if they don’t involve taking things apart as much as the Anatomy demonstrations. “In autopsies, there’s normally just one cut made down the middle of the body. You take out the main organs – heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and so on – examine them, and then put them back in again.” So those fearing that their genitals will succumb to the scalpel after death – as happened in the reproduction episode – can relax? “Well, you might need to take out the testes in some cases.”

Apparently though, the job isn’t all about corpses. Pathologists also analyse tissue taken from live patients to determine what’s wrong, and that for Lee is the toughest part of the job. “You do get samples from children, teenagers, 20-30 year olds with pretty nasty diseases that you have to diagnose. It makes you aware of your own mortality.” Does that bother him? “You have to live with it. I guess pathologists don’t tend to be a particularly nervous kind of person.” I try fishing for an amusing anecdote, but he sees it as a straightforward professional job. “You have your laugh outside the mortuary”, he says tersely.

Lee is unquestionably the serious scientist, and this is what comes across on screen (although he urges me not to “peddle caricatures”). Take for instance, the time when von Hagens introduced a preserved body, of which only a few bones and the blood vessels remained. “Zis is an extraordinary specimen”, he announced, proceeding to explain how arterial pressure had given the figure a “post mortal erection.” Thousands cracked up, the camera cut to anguished-looking faces in the studio audience, but Lee somehow kept a straight face.

Unsurprisingly then, his main motivation for doing the series was “the educational side. People should be able to see things for themselves. It’s healthier for us as a public if people know something about how we’re made. Hopefully then people will be encouraged to take care of their own bodies more.”

Like everyone else, Lee is still in the dark about why von Hagens always appears wearing his black fedora. But for him it’s not a pressing issue. “I know some people find it difficult to get beyond the hat and the German accent”, he says. The latter’s acclaimed Body Worlds exhibition, consisting of bodies preserved using his own ‘plastination’ technique, has attracted 15 million visitors. Around 6,000 people have pledged to donate their bodies to his Heidelberg Institute. “I think when von Hagens started off he needed some way to get people’s attention. But now his exhibition speaks for itself, and what we were doing on the programme spoke for itself. I personally don’t see the need for additional gimmicks.”

He emphasises the difference between their science demonstration and the more familiar Robert Winston-style documentary. “That’s a man with a moustache telling you about stuff. This was a man with a hat and a man with a white coat showing you stuff, with an audience to validate what they were doing.” Nothing beats the real thing, is the idea. “I mean, the point was not for anybody for to be famous or for anybody to be eccentric. What I was concerned about was that someone who was interested in the anatomy could learn something about it from the series.”

Nevertheless, the critics had a field day. Sunday Times reviewer AA Gill led the charge, rubbishing the show’s pedagogic claims. “Education is the fig leaf of choice when telly needs to get a bit of how’s-yer-father into a discerning nation’s living room,” he wrote. For his part, Lee is pleased there was “more sensible comment than silly comment” in the media. “Although there was a guy in one column who sounded like he needed medication.

“When the public autopsy was done there was all this hysterical nonsense in the papers as if the sky was going to fall, and then when it was actually done people were quite interested.”

Yet surely Lee admits that some of what we saw were just entertaining stunts rather than ‘proper’ science? How often do pathologists carve up human tissue on a machine similar to those found on supermarket deli counters, for example? “It’s actually a very sensible way to slice a brain. We don’t normally use one in an autopsy because it takes a bit of extra time – we usually use a long knife. But this guarantees that you get straight, even slices, so you can demonstrate the internal structure better.”

Fair enough. But what about the use of live models to illustrate the reproductive system, or the picture of the couple having it off in an MRI scanner? Pornography by another name, shouted the prudes. Lee is persistent: “Most people found it helpful from the feedback I’ve had. It helped them relate the anatomy to themselves.

“We showed the anatomy, we showed the models, we showed the plastinates. If we presented it in a way that grabbed people’s attention and made them fascinated so they couldn’t look away then that’s a good thing. We weren’t waving limbs around or messing around with the anatomy. We were simply demonstrating. Obviously anything else would have been unacceptable.”

Ratings for the series suggest at least some non-voyeuristic interest in the subject, with between one-and-a-half and two million tuning in, despite it’s late night slot. Lee says he’s “delighted to have colleagues say that patients have come into their surgeries saying how much they learnt from the series.”

Yet whilst Lee can ignore the columnists, government bureaucrats won’t go away. He is incensed that recent regulations, including the Human Tissue Bill currently going through Parliament, have made it almost impossible to conduct, let alone film, educational demonstrations in the UK. “You name it and they want to have a law about it. They’ve produced an awful lot of ill-thought-through legislation affecting medicine, medical research and education.”

Such issues aside, he says he’d consider more TV work, but only if the project was worthwhile. There’s no financial incentive. “The amount of money involved with those sort of things is pretty small.” As our interview ends, I ask if Lee wants his own body to be plastinated after death. He laughs. “It’s not my greatest ambition, I haven’t made any plans yet. I think I need to wait until my kids are a bit older and see if they’ve got any problems with it.” Guess they’ll be the ones having to watch the programmes.