By Jane Erikson
Norman Koelling began teaching anatomy to UA College of Medicine students in 1969. He was here for the college’s first graduation ceremony in 1971 – and every graduation since. And although he retired in 2002, he is still teaching, now as a volunteer.
“I never get tired of working with the students,” Koelling says. “I share that feeling of discovery with them. That’s something I experience vicariously. That’s the nice thing about teaching beginning students. You sort of get to be a beginner yourself – over and over.”
Koelling is easily one of the most respected and loved teachers in the history of the College of Medicine. For that and his years of dedication to medical students’ education, the College of Medicine has established a scholarship fund to assist first-year medical students in Koelling’s honor.
Teaching is in Koelling’s blood. He grew up in Nebraska, and was a pupil in a one-room schoolhouse where his father was the teacher. After getting two bachelor’s degrees – one in teaching, one in zoology – Koelling moved to Texas, where he taught for four years at a country school. He then moved to Milwaukee, where he taught high-school science for nine years.
In 1969, his academic training and teaching experience landed him a teaching-assistant position in the UA biological sciences department’s anatomy lab.
That’s where they stored the bodies.
The nascent College of Medicine had no room for donated bodies, so biological sciences agreed to help. The College of Medicine took note of Koelling’s skills, and hired him later in 1969 as a “technical staff” member to work in the college’s gross anatomy lab. His responsibilities included embalming donated bodies and keeping them in good condition for teaching purposes.
“I was the dean of cadavers,” he says with a laugh.
Koelling was promoted to a part-time faculty appointment in 1978. It became full-time in 1985 By then he was teaching College of Pharmacy students as well as medical students.
In 1993, the College of Medicine honored Koelling with an honorary Doctor of Science degree.
He now spends about four hours a day dissecting. “I can still treasure each part,” he says.
He is humbled by having a scholarship named in his honor.
“Medical school is very expensive, and having a scholarship may very well make the difference between starting medical school and not starting medical school,” Koelling says. “It can make a great difference in the direction of somebody’s life – even if it’s not a tremendous amount of money.”
Lane P. Johnson, MD, who graduated with the Class of 1983 and is now a UA Professor of Family and Community Medicine, is one of Koelling’s many admirers.
“Norm has been the go-to guy in anatomy for generations of medical students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine,” Johnson says. “He has been always available, always generous with his time and knowledge, always a beacon of light in the murky first years of medical school. He knows every student’s name. He can isolate and flex muscles most of us don’t even know we have. His prosections are works of art suitable for museums. I cannot imagine this school without him.”
Thinking back on his years of teaching, Koelling recalls all the laughter that has filled the anatomy lab, from one class to the next.
“It’s possible for students to be working mirthfully, but still be respectful of the bodies they’re working on,” he says. “I have willed my own body here, and I hope that some of the students enjoy working on me. They should have some fun doing that. Anatomy should be enjoyed, not just endured.”