William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

Wednesday, 23, March, 2011

The Elephant Story–Part 1

Filed under: In Memoriam,Medicine,Natural History — williamthecoroner @ 16:13

Dr. John R. Carter was a well-respected director of the Institute of Pathology. Coming from Kansas, he was passionate about education and put in place many innovations during his tenure. I was impressed by his teaching, and wish I could have learned more from him. Dr. Carter’s particular interest was orthopedic pathology, and when one of the Zoo’s elephant’s died he jumped at the chance to help with an elephant autopsy. You don’t get to do one of those every day, and he wanted a chance to take some samples of the bones.

Well, how does one do an elephant autopsy? You start with a very delicate chainsaw, making a linear ventral midline incision. You do this while the elephant is lying on its side. You then take 2 x 4’s and knock together some cribbing, to support the weight of the elephant’s side, and people can work in the cavity. Elephants are large, and have a lot of blood. It is a good idea to tie the support structure to something sturdy, so it doesn’t slip. It is also a good idea to have someone outside the elephant, labeling samples, scribing, doing all that good stuff. Dr. Carter and the vet failed to observe these precautions, or so he told me.

As an aside, I would never doubt Dr. Carter’s veracity, but he did tell me this story at the Christmas party, and he had a couple of Manhattans in him when he told it. I was not witness to this, and I make no judgement, I merely report a good story. For he told me that the cribbing slipped on the bloody floor, and collapsed, dropping the side of the abdomen down and trapping the prosectors in the belly of the beast. Literally.

Post-mortem processes being what they are, the elephant was in full rigor, and was fairly large anyway. The people trapped inside were unable to lift the abdominal flap to get out. They were stuck, and shouting for help did not work. Not many people really want to hang around a dead elephant after all, and this was being done out of view of the public. So there they were, stuck.

But both prosectors were well-trained in anatomy, and new what to do. Using the spine as a landmark (and possibly a handrail, they followed the intestines all the way back to the posterior end of the carcass. Using their blades, they opened the colon and were able to escape via the anus, emerging slimy yet unbowed. After a long shower, and with some assistance, they rebuilt the structure and finished the post-mortem.


  1. Wow. Just wow. Thank you for sharing that. The imagery will stay with me for a very long time. Amusing as well as frightening, and a little squicky at the end, but interesting.

    Comment by PhillipC — Wednesday, 23, March, 2011 @ 22:23 | Reply

  2. i thought the term ‘necropsy’ is used for all post mortem dissections of mammals other than Homo sapiens.

    Comment by clairesmum — Monday, 28, March, 2011 @ 18:24 | Reply

    • The only people who care are veterinarians, who aren’t real doctors, so it doesn’t matter what they think.

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Monday, 28, March, 2011 @ 18:39

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