City College's Air-Cooled Corpses

The Biological Sciences Department of City College of San Francisco, where hundreds of anatomy students receive hands-on instruction on human corpses, may have the greenest human cadaver program in the country.

The three corpses currently stored in Science Hall at Ocean Campus are preserved in formaldehyde and kept cool enough to prevent decomposition by nothing more than the Ingleside District fog, let in through an open window. There is no electric refrigeration; the window is the only ventilation.

The lab is no stranger to strangeness: in the 1980s, a burglar broke in and made away with a human head. (Neither the thief nor the purloined head were ever discovered.) But discovering the lab's antiquated storage techniques have shocked the administrators brought in to handle CCSF's ongoing accreditation crisis.

CCSF has plenty of structural problems at its many far-flung campuses. But at a public meeting in January 2015 — called in response to the closure of the seismically unsafe Civic Center Campus — former school Chancellor Art Tyler fingered the lack of refrigeration as particularly egregious.

“We've got formaldehyde that is perforating the building, peeling the paint, and so the solution way back when was to turn off the heat on that side of the building so we could keep the cadavers cold,” Tyler said. “That's not the right solution.”

However, faculty and staff say the lab, and the breezes greeting students busy with dissection through the open windows, is just fine.

Anatomy professor Michael Guthrie began teaching at City College in the spring of 1970. He recalled OSHA once inspected the cadaver lab in the early 1980s.

“They said, 'With the windows open and the wind we get up here, we actually have better ventilation,'” he says now, adding that it could be the damp weather and the age of the buildings that's peeling the paint, not cadaver preservatives.

“The paint has been coming off all our labs,” he says. “I could take you back to a program review I did 25 years ago and took pictures of the labs. It's the weather and the fact that it's an old building.”

Still, CCSF's cadaver lab is well behind the times. Modern labs have air and floor ventilation, as well as equipment for constant monitoring of temperature and chemicals in the air. They also have refrigeration.

The college has hired hired architecture firm tBP to create plans for modernizing the lab with some guidance from faculty, but the project cost — including a necessary overhaul of the elevators — has ground renovation to a halt.

(When a new body arrives, it must must be stood up to use the elevator. The existing non-ADA compliant elevators cannot fit a gurney.)

For Biology Laboratory Manager Nicola Burrows, the cadaver lab is only one of the problems at Science Hall. The attractive Art Deco building, built in 1940, has old electrical wiring, no internet or phone lines, a steam heater that can't be set to different temperatures — and the list goes on.

“I want the whole building to be done,” Burrows said. “Doing just one room and not the entire building seems kind of useless.”

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