Bodyworlds

Gunther von Hagens

Controversial, fascinating, educational, brilliant, often-imitated, artistic: the plastination of corpses. The man behind the process: Gunther von Hagens.

Working as an anatomy assistant at the University of Heidelberg, Germany in 1977, von Hagens was confronted with organ specimens conserved inside plastic blocks. He wondered why the specimens had been embedded in the plastic and not the other way around. He thought the specimen could be infused with the plastic, creating a much more realistic sample. He experimented with different vacuum techniques until, on January 10, 1977, he successfully made his first specimen, a plastinated kidney to be prepared and sliced for a research project. He decided that day to make plastination the focus of his life. The technique was patented between 1977 and 1982 and he has worked to improve the process over the years.

The Circulation System

Medical students learn anatomy by dissecting a corpse down. They remove the skin, the muscles, the chest and abdominal wall. After the organs are removed, they are left with the bones and ligaments. Platinates, as the prepared corpses are called, allow students and lay persons alike to experience anatomy in a whole new facet. Because of the polymers, the muscles can be fixed in definite poses. Certain systems of the body, like the circulation or nervous system, can be isolated and exposed, allowing them to be observed in their entirety.

The exhibition has been touring for ten years now and over 30 million people have attended. The enormous success of the exhibition has also stirred quite a bit of controversy over the years. The ethics question arises from the church, although the corpses come from donors who have given permission for their bodies to be donated to science for medical research. Eight thousand (8000!) people are waiting in line to donate their bodies. In 2009, von Hagens unveiled the Sex Couple at the Berlin exhibition, evoking mucht debate and critisism. Wanting to show the Couple at the London exhibition, von Hagens wrote and open letter to the British public via the London Evening Standard describing his latest work:  “…the anatomical preservation of a man and a woman – two consenting, deceased donors – through my science of plastination, in a pose meant to highlight human reproduction.”  (You can read the complete letter here)

Searching the Web for pictures, I stumbled on a mulititude of blog entries written by people who have visited the Body Worlds. Some were appalled, some fascinated, others outraged. I have not yet had the honor, I must say. Count me in with the Fascinated.

Here is a link to the official website, with tour dates and a detailed explanation of the plastination process:

http://www.bodyworlds.com/en.html

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