Columbus Sailed…

columbus-178mi54“Columbus sailed the ocean blue….”

How many of you experienced a Sheldon-Cooper-like urge to finish that line with “…in fourteen hundred ninety-two”?

On Columbus Day we are also celebrating an early Thanksgiving—for the blessing of mnemonics.

Many of my anatomy & physiology students are unfamiliar with the word “mnemonic,” but they quickly grasp the concept when I ask them about the number of days in September. Some recite the well-known “Thirty days hath September…” while others count their knuckles and the grooves between them.

I then ask, “Which usually comes first, ‘i’ or ‘e’?” Typically, several can rattle off the familiar spelling tip.

Once my students understand what a mnemonic is, I explain that the vast amount of rote memory required to do well in our subject has always intimidated students. Fortunately, many students have devised clever mnemonics to help them recall the material.  Some of these are visual, and these are perfect for making PowerPoint slides. A thoracic vertebra looks like a giraffe when viewed from the rear, while a lumbar vertebra looks like a moose:


Some are meaningless in themselves, but make perfect sense once the learner understands them. For example, the six bones of the cranium can be recalled with the help of “PEST OF 6.” (Parietal, ethmoid, sphenoid, temporal, occipital, frontal…that makes 6!)


Still others are built into the words themselves. The A bands on the stripes of skeletal muscle fibers are the dArk ones, while the I bands are the lIght ones. One can remember the nucleotide pairings in DNA by recalling that the straight, pointy letters (A &T) always match up, while the round, curvy letters (C & G) are partners. Why? Because “C & G have three” binding sites, while A & T enjoy “tea for two.”  For our non-biology readers, the initials stand for adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine.


Many of the mnemonics in A&P are legacies from generations of randy medical students, formerly predominantly male. These are too racy (OK, frankly vulgar) for me to share here or in class. I learned that this gender bias is not exclusive when I overheard two young women in my class sharing one of the vilest memory aids I had ever heard, with one proudly claiming authorship.

Finally, the internet offers a wealth of mnemonics, with YouTube hosting a number of clever student creations. While these must be checked for accuracy, students enjoy them and take pride in helping me spot the bloopers.  Here’s a particularly popular one for the twelve cranial nerves. (Like too many students, these guys can’t spell “tongue.”)

And speaking of accuracy, here’s a quote from Oscar Wilde about Columbus:

“Perhaps, after all, America never has been discovered.  I myself would say that it had merely been detected.”

You can find more Columbus quotes questioning the concept of discovery by clicking here.


One comment on “Columbus Sailed…

  1. Brian Leslie Coatney says:

    great visuals to go with those mnemonics!

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