Dazzling dissection images from famed Bassett collection now online



Bassett collection

By injecting the arteries and veins with red and blue material, Bassett demonstrates their distribution in these dissected kidneys. The image provides a detailed view of the lymphatic drainage of the region.


» View slide show of images

The image of the human heart floats detached in a sea of blue, its tiniest red arteries and blue veins clearly shown growing into the muscled organ like the tiny roots of a tree. With the click of a mouse, the right ventricle lights up green; another click on "apex of the heart" and the bottom tip turns purple.

By this summer, thousands of similar images of every part of the body will be online in a newly digitized version of the School of Medicine's world-renowned Bassett collection of human dissection.

The first set of images hits computer screens this month, an online library that takes the one-of-a-kind collection of photographs and makes them available in a whole new format with highlighted labeling and audio narration.

Think "Body Worlds," the traveling exhibit of preserved human bodies viewed by millions, but much larger, with more detail and geared toward providing an encyclopedic volume of information about the anatomy of the human body.

"The Bassett collection is simply the most beautiful dissection collection in existence," said Paul Brown, DDS, consulting associate professor of anatomy, referring to the 50-year-old collection of 1,547 photographs of serial dissections painstakingly annotated over a 17-year period. "The photographs are stunning."

After almost four years of work by School of Medicine researchers together with eHuman, a Silicon Valley company, the first set of images of the head and neck are now ready for public viewing online at By summer, the rest of the human body will follow. The images are free to the Stanford community and available to the public for a minimal fee.

"This collection is designed for any student of anatomy, from a high-schooler, to a medical anatomist," said Brown, founder of eHuman, an anatomy dissection software company located in Portola Valley whose mission is to create the first "clickable" human, something akin to the Google Earth map project, but for the body.

Bringing the Bassett collection to the computer screen with the added benefits of today's state-of-the-art imaging and medical technologies is key to reaching this goal, Brown said. This new format will expose more human anatomy students to what will probably be the best dissection collection ever in existence.

"There's nothing else like the Bassett," Brown said. "It won't ever be duplicated. The number of man-hours spent cataloging each photograph, nobody's ever going to do it. It would cost millions and millions of dollars today."

Since the Bassett images were first made public in the 1950s, the collection, which now belongs to the School of Medicine, has remained the definitive dissection collection available to medical students and instructors. The incredibly detailed dissections that show and label most every part of the human body - from its tiniest veins, arteries and nerves to serial cross-sections of the spinal cord, together with the meticulous labeling and high-resolution photographs - have kept it in circulation. Currently, Bassett images can be found in most anatomy textbooks. As the trend toward less use of cadavers for dissection in medical school has grown, so has the use of the Bassett images.

While cadavers are still used at Stanford in first-year anatomy classes, the Bassett images augment medical education in the following years of training, Brown said.

The online version will hopefully further expand its use, said Robert Chase, MD, the Emile Holman Professor of Surgery, Emeritus. Chase is curator of the collection, which was donated to the medical school by the children of David Bassett, who died in 1966.

Bassett graduated from the School of Medicine in 1934. As a faculty member at Stanford, he was known for his elegant dissections and love for the human body, said Chase, who was chair of surgery when Bassett was an associate professor of anatomy.

It was Bassett's genius for dissection that attracted the attention of William Gruber, the photographer who invented the View-Master, a stereoscopic viewing device familiar to most children. A 17-year collaboration between the two resulted in the production of the Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy begun in 1948 and not completed until 1962. It consisted of 221 View-Master reels with 1,554 color stereo views of dissections of every body region. Each stereo view was accompanied by a black-and-white, labeled drawing and explanatory text.

"It was very popular nationally," Chase said. "When Bassett first showed the images, lines formed around the block to see them."

"Although they're 50 years old, the pictures were taken with high-resolution Kodak film," said Brown, explaining why the images have held up over the decades. "This is what they looked like before we got them," he said holding up the original View-Master reels. "One can see how the nerve enters the jaw. It is possible to see inside of the sinus cavity. Look at the quality. It's just fabulous."

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