Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Haunting poetic characteristics: the dissection scene from Doctor Zhivago

Timo Hannu
Helsinki, Finland


Dissecting room from Edinburgh in 1889.
Source: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

Doctor Zhivago, a novel by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak, tells the story of physician-poet Yura Zhivago during the turmoil of the first decades of the twentieth century in Russia. The character of Dr. Zhivago is portrayed as follows:1

“Though he was greatly drawn to art and history, he scarcely hesitated over the choice of his career. He considered that art was no more a vocation than innate cheerfulness or melancholy were professions. He was interested in physics and natural science and believed that a man should do something useful in his practical life. He settled on medicine.”

In the pages of Hektoen International, childbirth practices found in Doctor Zhivago have previously been described.2 The novel also includes a scene in which Dr. Zhivago recalls dissecting human cadavers, an essential part of the medical education, during his study years.1 Gloomy atmosphere, the smell of formalin, and naked dead bodies are vividly presented there, as reminiscences of a practice which unites medical doctors around the world. Few other professions are so closely identified with such a unifying practice.3

“In the first year of his four-year course he had spent a term in the dissecting room; it was deep underground in the basement of the university. You came down the winding staircase. There was always a crowd of disheveled students, some hard at work over their tattered textbooks surrounded by bones, or quietly dissecting, each in his corner, others fooling about, cracking jokes and chasing the rats which scurried in swarms over the stone floors. In the half-darkness of the mortuary the naked bodies of drowned women and unidentified young suicides, well preserved and untouched by decay, gleamed white as phosphorus. Injections of alum salts rejuvenated them and gave them a deceptive roundness. The corpses were cut open, dismembered and prepared, yet even in its smallest sections the human body kept its beauty, so that the wonder Yura [Zhivago] felt in looking at the body of a girl brutally flung down upon a zinc table he also felt in gazing at her amputated arm or hand. The basement smelled of carbolic and formaldehide [sic] and was filled with the presence of mystery, the mystery of the unknown lives of these naked dead, and the mystery of life and death itself – and death was as familiar in this place as though the underground room were its home or its headquarters.”

Coulehan and Moore have suggested that “for Dr. Zhivago, philosophy, poetry, and medicine are all part of a unified whole.”4 But there are always dissonances in the chords of life for those who seek its beauty. Wisely, Pasternak acknowledges this when finishing the dissection scene:1

“The voice of this mystery, drowning everything else, distracted Yura at his dissecting. But then a lot of things in life distracted him. He was used to it and was not put out.”

Boris Pasternak describes the mystery of the human cadaveric dissection masterfully, with a clear voice that also has unique, haunting poetic characteristics.



  1. Pasternak B. Doctor Zhivago. Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Collins and Harvill Press, London, 1958: 67-68.
  2. Colello SS. Cultural warfare: investigating childbirth practises in ”Doctor Zhivago.” Hektoen International. Volume 9, issue 2.
  3. Coulehan, JL, Williams PC, Landis D, Naser C. The first patient: reflections and stories about the anatomy cadaver. Teaching and Learning in Medicine 1995;7:61-66.
  4. Doctor Zhivago. Annotated by Paul Coulehan and Pamela Moore. The Literature Arts Medicine Database. New York University School of Medicine. http://medhum.med.nyu.edu/view/291 (accessed 4.8.2018)



TIMO HANNU, MD, DMedSci, is a specialist in occupational health and in occupational medicine. He has published scientific papers on rheumatology, infectious diseases, and occupational medicine. He is currently working as a medical expert in the Social Insurance Institution of Finland in Helsinki. He is interested in history of medicine and medical humanities.


Spring 2018  |  Sections  |  Literary Vignettes

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