New feature-length documentary explores the study of human anatomy with unprecedented access to student dissection of the human body.

No class in medical school is considered more challenging than gross anatomy – the dissection of the human body. Aptly described by many in the medical field as a rite of passage in which students learn the complex language of medicine and the intricacies of the human body, the class is unlike anything experienced in any other setting. Documentation for a film and TV audience rarely has been undertaken – until now.

In a course developed by Mayo Medical School, 52 first-year medical students spend seven weeks as members of four-person teams following a closely defined process of dissection and analysis of donor cadavers. Long considered an essential, but somewhat daunting subject, the anatomy class provides students with firsthand experience that helps inform and shape their entire education – from learning human anatomy to patient care to skills in teamwork and professionalism.

“The study of anatomy done in this manner has a profound impact on our students,” says Wojciech Pawlina, M.D., professor of Anatomy and Medical Education at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and a leading national expert and author on anatomy and histology. “Filming this passage with The Duncan Group will hopefully provide the public with a glimpse of how the study of gross anatomy translates into the real world of medical care, teamwork, professionalism, and, even in death, putting the patient first.”

Tentatively titled The First Patient, the feature-length documentary will include detailed interviews with faculty and more than 20 participants from the diverse student body. The film is being written and directed by Chip Duncan from the award-winning team at The Duncan Group, Inc. The producers for the film are Duncan, Vivien Williams, and Bob Huck. The Duncan Group is now in its 31st year as a leading producer of long-form, nonfiction documentaries.

“It’s a privilege to document the extraordinary transformation of first-year students in the class many consider the toughest in medical school,” says Chip Duncan, director. “With access and assistance provided by Mayo Clinic, we were able to bring our cameras into a world the public rarely sees. I believe our audience will be inspired by the passion and commitment of the students, as well as the astonishing beauty of the human body.”

The First Patient has been in the planning stages with Mayo Clinic for nearly four years as the production team conducted extensive research and carefully worked through filming logistics. The joint collaboration of The Duncan Group and Mayo Medical School, long considered a national leader in medical education, underscores the importance of medical training and patient care.

“Mayo Clinic is transforming the way tomorrow’s physicians are trained,” says Michele Halyard, M.D., interim dean, Mayo Medical School. “This film gives a glimpse of our students’ hard work and dedication, and provides unprecedented insights into the journey of becoming a doctor. But, most importantly, the film will demonstrate what an amazing gift the human body is to our students and the medical profession in general.”

The anticipated release date for The First Patient is January 2017. Scripting and editing for the film are underway at The Duncan Group offices in Milwaukee.

Ginger Plumbo

Mayo Clinic is a nonprofit organization committed to medical research and education, and providing expert, whole-person care to everyone who needs healing.

Images are © copyright of Chip Duncan. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

Dr. Nirusha Lachman, Dr. Wojciech Pawlina, Chip Duncan, Anatomy Lab – Mayo Medical School – Nov. 2015

Listen to the interview that was produced as a companion feature for this news report.