Next week marks the start of classes for a lot of medical, dental, nursing, physician assistant, medical technology, veterinary, and other allied health students. Most of you will be faced with the beginning of a pathology course tomorrow (or if not tomorrow, soon). And except for a couple scenes from CSI and X Files, most of you will have had little exposure to pathology before. What can you do to make some big-picture sense out of the fire-hose amount of minutae you’ll be faced with over the next weeks/months?

The short answer to pretty much any question you have about pathology is: Robbins.

The longer answer is: there are several formats of Robbins, and you should pick the one that’s the most useful for you. There are other things you can do to prepare, too, and we’ll cover those in parts two and three of this little series.

Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease (now in its 9th edition) is the Bible of pathology. It’s used in pretty much every med school pathology course in the US, but it’s so good that pathology residents – and even staff pathologists – have it on the shelf and pull it down a lot. This version of Robbins is called “big Robbins” for good reason: 1408 pages, and you could use it to hold open a door on a windy day. It’s definitely complete and thorough – but the best thing about it is the way it’s written. Somehow the authors manage to take huge topics and distill them into a few really representative sentences or paragraphs. And the information is very current; with each edition, new and relevant research is added in (in a readable way, compared to the original papers). For most of you, this will be your reference throughout your course. If time was not an issue, I’d advise my students (and you) to read through each chapter as you’re covering it in class. For most students, that’s just not feasible – so you’ll likely end up just doing your best, reading in depth only on the things that are confusing from class, and looking up things you’ve forgotten.

There is also a great little summary book that most students call “baby Robbins.” The real name is Pocket Companion to Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease, 9th edition. It has 896 cute little pages and it wouldn’t hold any door open, though it works great to prop up your iPhone. If you’re a medical or dental student, this would be a great book to thumb through before (or at the beginning of) your pathology course just to give you an overview of everything. Also, if you can’t read big Robbins, you might just read through the part of baby Robbins that corresponds to what you’re doing in class. It’s very doable – just a few small pages on each system, and you’ll get a great overview of what you’ll be learning. If you’re an allied health student, and your path course is really short, this just might be enough of a reference for you.

Finally, there’s a third format of Robbins that doesn’t have a universally-accepted name (I’ve heard both “medium Robbins” and “teenage Robbins” but there are probably other names). The official name is Robbins Basic Pathology (which sounds confusingly similar to Robbins Pathologic Basis of Disease). This book is, as you’d expect, a medium-sized version of Robbins: 928 full-sized pages, written just as well as big Robbins, but with less information overall. This is the book we use in our dental student pathology course because big Robbins is way too big, and baby Robbins doesn’t have enough detail to cover what dental students need to know for boards. I don’t expect my students to read every word, but just to use it as they see fit. It seems they use it to look up stuff that doesn’t make sense, or to refer back to material we covered earlier. If you’re a medical student, you could use this book as a quick reference, but you’ll still need big Robbins. However, if you’re a dental, physician assistant, nursing or veterinary student, it’s an adequate source. It’s probably overkill for medical technology and allied health students.

There’s a couple ancillary Robbins products that I’ve used from time to time. I recently got a box of Robbins flashcards, and I think they’re pretty good. They seem like they’d be helpful to flip through when you get sick of looking at your notes. There’s also a review book called, not surprisingly, Robbins and Cotran Review of Pathology. This book has a bunch of questions in it, and they’re vignette-style which is good to prepare you for boards. Finally, there is a Robbins Pathology Atlas – I haven’t used this, and I don’t really think it would be necessary in most cases. Unless you’re way into pathology, big Robbins should show you everything you need to know visually.

If all else fails, feel free to email me ( with any questions you have as you get started. I hope you have a great course with some great teachers!