Profs lead expansion of anatomy program

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

John Legler arrived at the U in 1969 to take over human anatomy courses and open a new program teaching students basic anatomy and dissection.

Forty years and more than 30,000 students later, the anatomy program has expanded to seven courses and laboratories for students preparing for medical school, future graduate students and others interested in the intricacies of human dissection.

“When I studied human anatomy at the University of Kansas, they said it was just for potential doctors,” said Legler, who retired in 1985. “We teach all interested students.”

When Legler retired to research turtles in the basement of the Utah Museum of Natural History, his former student, Mark Nielsen, took over the position and has been there since.

Nielsen, a biology professor, is the only professor in the program but trains hundreds of teaching assistants every year who help run 13 anatomy dissection labs each semester.

For more than 30 years, Nielsen and Legler built a legacy by helping students understand the delicate procedure of dissection.

“This is a program that has national recognition,” Nielsen said. “It’s not just an anatomy course.”

Many of the teaching assistants run cadaver labs at the U School of Medicine. Nielsen said medical schools from around the country send him letters about how impressed they are with medical students coming from the U’s anatomy program.

Mary Ann Battle took human anatomy courses at the U in the early 1980s and said she still benefits from what she learned from them. Battle said that even after years of training to become a licensed physical therapist, her classes with Nielsen helped her most of all.

“Professor Nielsen is an amazing teacher,” Battle said. “He doesn’t just talk about veins and tendons but really teaches.”

Nielsen said the key to teaching anatomy is realizing that to most students, it’s a foreign language.

“If you can visualize the major organs, you can establish levels of how body parts interconnect,” Legler said.

The program includes subjects such as human anatomy, embryology, advanced human anatomy, teaching anatomy8212;which trains teaching assistants8212;and anatomy dissection.

The biology department is raising money to expand the anatomy program and combine it with anthropology courses to educate students in human evolution, behavior and effects humans have on the ecosystem.

The department received approval for an endowed chair last December, which Legler hopes Nielsen will receive.

“A chair is not voted on at the departmental level,” Legler said. “It solidifies a part of your curriculum.”

Legler said some professors have said human anatomy isn’t as necessary as other biology and chemistry courses on campus. But without understanding anatomy, surgeons wouldn’t be able to operate and doctors would be stuck trying to diagnose ailments without basic knowledge, Nielsen said.

“Would you take your car to a mechanic who doesn’t know the anatomy of a car?” Nielsen asked. “A doctor needs to understand tendons to diagnose a sprained wrist.”

Even when Legler was teaching, anatomy was offered as a class and in a video lecture the retired professor organized years ago. Nielsen also records lectures and offers PowerPoint and other presentations to help students learn in any way possible.

“You’re always going to have some motivated students who can pull anything off, but the average student will learn better if you give them multiple tools to learn with,” Nielsen said.

Neither Legler, who taught for 30 years, nor Nielsen, who has taught more than 20 years, regret the long years.

“I’ve never had to work a day in my life,” Legler said. “It’s not work when you enjoy what you do.”

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