Mounting anatomical specimens: a labour of love

Professor Jane Dahlstrom at the museum

Early in 2023, Ms Adrienne Heckenberg – a health professional officer (scientist) - decided the time was right to give-up her part-time role with the Australian National University (ANU).

After 16 years of service, the dedication and attention to detail shown by Ms Heckenberg will continue to be appreciated by students and staff of the ANU School of Medicine and Psychology (SMP) for years to come.

Professor Jane Dahlstrom who oversees the pathology program within SMP said, “Adrienne has been an integral member of the pathology education team providing scientific support, developing our online Museum content, and curating the specimens displayed in the Peter Herdson Pathology Museum. She mounted many of the specimens herself and her expertise will be missed.”

With approximately 1200 specimens including over 500 mounted (also known as potted) specimens in the Museum, students are able to view body organs close-up, and compare diseased organs to normal organs – an invaluable teaching tool.

“I learnt the basics on how to mount specimens by visiting the curator of the University of NSW anatomical museum. Although I split my time between pathology lab and mortuary work with Canberra Health Service and scientific support at the ANU, the work in the Museum has been extremely rewarding and an experience I will always cherish,” Ms Heckenberg smiled.

“It never ceased to amaze me how different diseases manifested in organs and how they partially or completely took over the organ. One example would be a polycystic kidney. The clusters of fluid filled cysts, which develop in the kidney cause the kidney to enlarge and lose function over time.”

Mounting a specimen is most definitely an art form. The specimen has to be placed in such a way that those viewing it can see the organ from every angle.

Ms Heckenberg explained, “Once a specimen is chosen to be mounted it is measured and oriented in its anatomical position where possible and an appropriate sized perspex pot is ordered.”

“There is another sheet of perspex within this pot which fits into a groove created in the pot. The specimen is attached to this perspex sheet with fishing line (sometimes cotton) which is fed through tiny holes drilled into the perspex sheet and secured with a knot.”

“The specimen is suspended in a special mounting fluid and the base is glued onto the pot. The specimen appears to be floating in the pot demonstrating a particular disease, anomaly or a normal organ to provide a visual comparison to its diseased counterpart,” Ms Heckenberg said.

With Ms Heckenberg’s departure, SMP welcomes Ms Jessica Puniard, Mr Edward Mwesigye and Ms Thuha Vu who have taken on the role of mounting specimens.

One of their first projects was to mount ten specimens for the SMP Sydney Clinical School, with funding for the project generously provided by the Sydney Adventist Hospital Foundation.

The collection for the SMP Sydney Clinical School will continue to grow in the future and will be shared with ANU medical students undertaking placements at the Sydney Adventist Hospital as part of their anatomical pathology education.