A study was conducted to determine whether the attitudes of medical students to death and caring changed during the 3 months following exposure to cadaver dissection. All first-year students were invited to complete a questionnaire immediately before their initial cadaver dissection experience, after 6 weeks, and after a further 3 months. The questionnaire reflected attitudes to death, violent death, death of someone known to the respondent and caring when someone known to the respondent is seriously injured. Ethnicity and previous exposure to dying has no effect on responses, but overall men students' reactions were significantly less than for women (P < 0.001). The responses given on the final part of the questionnaire after 3 months were significantly lower than those to most questions in the first part of the questionnaire. The exceptions were those questions where the subject in the given scenario was known to the respondent, where reactions were rated significantly greater (P < 0.001) in the follow-up questionnaire and can be explained on the basis that they were a personal referent. Students rapidly develop a coping mechanism which enables them to view cadaver dissection as an occupation quite divorced from living human beings. During these early months of training solicitude decreases for those who die who are unknown to them, but concern for personal referents increases. Educators should be aware of the dramatic change of attitudes among students and the process of professionalization which might influence their caring of future patients.