Frogs Are Fine for Most Budding Biologists, but Jerry Lasnik Brings His High School Class a Human Dimension

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

In a large closet in the back of high school biology teacher Jerry Lasnik's classroom in Agoura, Calif. are jars containing a variety of formaldehyde-preserved specimens: fetuses, brains, colons, cow eyes, kidney stones—even, he points out, "the placenta that came with my son, Adam." But his real prides are on two carts: the body-bagged cadavers of an elderly man and woman. Each morning the carts are wheeled into the classroom and the bodies are unbagged. Then Lasnik's juniors and seniors do something that few other students experience outside of med school: 29 beginners get to watch the dissection of a corpse and five advanced students actually participate. "They're getting a head start in the firsthand study of the human body," says their proud instructor.

Lasnik, 39, obtained his first cadaver in 1981, and his class has since become one of Agoura High's most popular electives, even though he gives a tough quiz every session and the school requires chemistry as a prerequisite. "It's my hardest class but my favorite too," says senior Jill Klayman. Adds junior Russ Persell: "I want to be a doctor even more because of this. A few kids don't like Mr. Lasnik because he really makes you work, but he's just as interested in this stuff as we are." About half the class hopes to enter some medical field.

Guided by Lasnik and their anatomy books, the five experienced students scalpel painstakingly through the cadavers' flesh, occasionally spraying a new layer with chemicals to prevent drying. Progress is slow: One boy took an entire semester to cut through the blood vessels and muscles in one foot. But so far the class has confirmed that the man died of lung cancer and the woman of cirrhosis of the liver. Lasnik says he is careful to keep things "on a high plane. We don't let people make jokes." While there is some tittering—the male body has been nicknamed George—the students are serious about their work. Many ask to come in at night or on weekends to watch Lasnik dissect in preparation for the next class, and when a guest brain surgeon came early one morning to cut into a cadaver skull with an autopsy saw, half the class showed up voluntarily.

The program has provoked no parental protest, although one woman wrote a letter expressing worry that the students would become "cold-blooded." If anything, the opposite seems to happen. One morning, says Lasnik, "I could see tears welling up in a girl's eyes. I took her aside and we talked about it." At first, he admits, "I had some sleepless nights myself: You look at the cadaver and start thinking about it as a person." "It's gross and sometimes I hate to look at it," senior Kathy Becker confesses. "It's much too human. Sometimes, after Mr. Lasnik touches it, if he comes near me, I'll say, 'Excuse me!' But no one has to take this class who doesn't want to."

Lasnik conceived his program after reading about a high school near L.A. at which a teacher uses cadavers to demonstrate dissection—without student participation, however. Visiting that school with his principal and superintendent, Lasnik got a go-ahead, but finding bodies proved much harder. Some medical schools told Lasnik they are constantly short of cadavers (most have been willed to science, a few are simply unclaimed) and he would have the lowest priority. But he located the male corpse at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine in August 1981 and got the female cadaver from there a year later, paying $120 for each and driving his find to his classroom in the school district station wagon. His storage closet was equipped with an exhaust system to keep odors down, but refrigeration was not necessary: Properly preserved cadavers can last from 10 to 15 years.

The son of a milkman, Lasnik grew up in the San Fernando Valley wanting to be a doctor. "But I just never did it. I was too anxious to get out into the world." At Cal State Northridge, he majored in biology and married classmate Pam Foster, then joined the Agoura faculty. They have two children, Amanda, 5, and Adam, 11. Two nights a week he teaches anatomy at a community college to make ends meet, but he still finds time to scuba dive, play French horn, collect stamps and serve as an assistant scoutmaster—and keep current in his field.

Lasnik hopes to buy a new cadaver every September. "It's easier for the new kids to see fresh ones than ones that are all chopped up," he explains. Then, surveying George and his mate, he adds fondly, "These people donated their bodies. I really think they'd be proud of what we're doing."

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