A hush had fallen on the group of young men and women assembled in the lecture hall. One could hear a pin drop.
The portly and balding gentleman who stood in front of the chalkboard looked over the group like he dared then to take their eyes off him. Then he spun around and grabbed 2 pieces of white chalk from the tray that was attached to the side of the chalk board. Now facing the chalkboard, he set both hands, each with a piece of white chalk in it, on the board. If one looked closely, only the pieces of chalk touched the board. Keeping the chalk pieces on the board, he swung his hands out in an arc. Both hands worked simultaneously as he drew. Like a conductor, his arms moved around. He reminded one of Kurt Masur, conducting a Bach performance at the Gewandhaus a few miles away.
As he worked, exhibiting his ambidexterity, a collective gasp went up from the collection of young students. They had heard about it but seeing it made it all the more mystical.
Soon he was done and like a maestro, he lay the pieces of chalk down and spun around. The students were on their feet, in thunderous ovation. When the ovation finally died down, he said:
“That is the cross-section of the spinal cord.”
Gerald Leutert was the Professor of Gross Anatomy when I was at the University of Leipzig. He was feared, revered and respected. He was a legend in his day. As first-year medical students, we had heard stories from the older students. The most amazing story was how he drew a cross-section of the spinal cord.
Now a cross-section of the spinal cord looks like two half-ellipses put together, one on the left and the other on the right. Well, Professor Leutert, being ambidextrous, drew both half-ellipses simultaneously and also added in the nuclei, laminae, tracts etc simultaneously. If you cannot imagine the skill it takes to do that, look at the image of the cross-section of the spinal cord below.
Over the years, I have wondered what his intentions were when he made that drawing with so much pomp. Initially I thought he was just showing off. However as first year flowed into second year of medical school and the anatomy lab become a home away from home, I couldn’t overcome the feeling that there was another reason.
The Anatomy Lab. Home of broken dreams and high hopes. Of the end of life fueling knowledge. Professor Leutert ruled it like a king with us as his lowly subjects.
On those days that he came back to inspect our dissections and test our knowledge, it felt like judgement day. Come to think of it, was judgement day! Portly and short, it seemed he could rest his hands on his ample belly. Flanked by two assistants, and holding forceps in his hands like a scepter, he moved from table to table, passing judgement swiftly and mercilessly, in an atmosphere enriched with formalin.
“What is that?”, he’ll ask, picking up the delicate tissue.
“The radial nerve.”
With a nod he’ll be off to the next table.
“What are the structures that border this organ?”, pointing at the liver.
A hint of hesitation and one wilted under a barrage of even more questions, like said organ when cirrhotic.
I survived Anatomy and went on to graduate. All these years that day in the lecture hall has stayed with me. The day that I watched Professor Leutert display his ambidexterity. Recently, the essence of it kind of hit me.
The dear professor wasn’t trying to show off. Not at all. In showing us his dexterity so early, he tried to impress upon us what it took to do a good dissection. He made us realize the importance of learning anatomy and made us gain a deep respect for those whose bodies we had the honor to learn from. He also made us realize very early that medicine is practiced with both the mind as well as with the hands. He was telling us that no matter what specialty we ended up in, we needed to exhibit dexterity and practice medicine with all our senses.
With that he gained our respect. We looked up to him and revered him. Moreover we feared him. Not because he could hurt us. (Well, if one flunked Anatomy, that was it). That wasn’t the reason we feared him though. We dreaded disappointing him. He had set the bar quite high and we all strived to reach it. We feared not reaching it.
Professor Gerald Leutert died in 1999 at the age of 69. Apart from a short stint as Rector of the University of Leipzig, he spent the majority of his over 40-year career teaching and doing research in the field of Anatomy.
In his own way, he managed to grab the attention of the young medical students he was entrusted with and hold it. In the process he formed them, trained them and influenced them. I would know – he got and held the attention of my peers and I and in the process formed, trained and influenced us.