German anatomist Gunther von Hagens (born 1945) has both inspired wonder and created controversy with his plastination technique of preserving human bodies and his extraordinarily widely viewed Body Worlds traveling museum exhibit.
Body Worlds showed dissected and opened-up human corpses, preserved with the plastination process and mounted in lifelike, sometimes humorous poses. The complex workings of the human body were displayed in a comprehensible way, even to visitors with little background in human anatomy. Von Hagens saw himself as an heir to the artists who first made accurate anatomical drawings during the Renaissance era. The object of the
Von Hagens was born Gunther Gerhard Liebchen in Pose (now Poznan) in German-occupied Poland on January 10, 1945. His family moved around eastern Germany in a horse-drawn wagon during the last months of World War II, finally settling in the small city of Greiz in the Thuringia region. As a child, von Hagens liked building cardboard airplanes and was fascinated by the work of a sculptor neighbor. He suffered from hemophilia, a blood disorder that carries a strong risk of dangerous bleeding even after minor injuries, and when he was six he experienced a crisis episode due to internal bleeding in his forehead, and heard doctors say they thought he would die.
Von Hagens survived but was hospitalized for 11 months. He had plenty of time to watch the doctors and nurses who circulated through the children's ward, engaged in a large variety of medical monitoring activities. "I came to the conclusion that the body must be very, very interesting," von Hagens told Russell Working of the Chicago Tribune . Despite the risks of working with sharp instruments, von Hagens formed the ambition to pursue a medical career. Soon he was cutting open insects he had found, and at 14 he dissected a calf kept on an uncle's farm. Initially turned down for university study in East Germany's strictly tracked educational system, von Hagens worked as an elevator attendant, mailman, and nurse. The last of these heightened his interest in medicine, and he was finally accepted to the University of Jena Medical School in 1965.
In 1968 von Hagens joined student protesters who demonstrated against the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in January of 1969, on the pretext that he was on vacation, he made his way to the Czech border with Austria and attempted twice to cross. On the second try he was arrested and spent 21 months in an East German prison. He was freed in a cash-for-release deal worked out by the West and East German governments, and he enrolled at the University of Lübeck Medical School in West Germany. He did a residency on an island where duty-free liquor was sold, where his work gained him firsthand experience of the effects of alcoholism on the human body—effects that he would later demonstrate graphically in Body Worlds . In 1974 he received his medical degree, and the following year he married a classmate, Cornelia von Hagens. Disliking the name Liebchen, which means "little darling," he took her last name. The couple raised three children but later divorced. In 1992 he married Angelina Whalley, a physician who became his business manager.
Bored by his specialty of anesthesiology, von Hagens took a job as a research assistant at the Institute of Pathology and Anatomy at the University of Heidelberg. In 1977 he invented the plastination process (he used the same word in German and English) that would determine the course of the rest of his life. The initial brainstorm came to him at a butcher's shop, and indeed plastination allowed medical students and researchers to use a device like a meat slicer to cut human internal organs into pieces of any desired size. In its essentials, plastination involved the injection of polymers—plastics—into a cadaver that had been frozen and then dehydrated.
Von Hagens devoted his research efforts over the next decade to refining his plastination technique, and he was awarded two German patents for his work. The initial aim of plastination was to guarantee a supply of human organs for medical schools, which have perennially experienced difficulties in obtaining cadavers for instructional purposes. Von Hagens formed a company of his own, Biodur Products, to distribute the materials necessary for plastination, and he organized an International Society for Plastination whose meetings were devoted to applications of the technique. In 1983 the Catholic Church in Rome asked von Hagens to plastinate a preserved heel bone of St. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval nun, composer, and theologian who experienced mystical visions.
That was among the first indications von Hagens received that anyone aside from medical specialists would be interested in his work. He got another strong hint in 1988, when he worked late one night and noticed a custodian in the building staring in amazement at a group of plastinated body parts. As an experiment, von Hagens organized a small exhibition of plastinated organs in Pforzheim, Germany, and it drew appreciative crowds. Technical advances in the plastination technique went hand in hand with his expanding ambitions, and by 1993 he could plastinate an entire human body, opening it up and displaying it in a variety of ways.
When he suggested the exhibition that became Body Worlds to museums and university display spaces, most of them refused, convinced that the public would find the plastinated corpses nothing more than gruesome. Von Hagens persisted, however, and in 1995 he was invited to display his work at Juntendo University in Japan. More than 400,000 visitors came to the exhibition, which benefited from word of mouth over its two months of existence. Indeed, von Hagens pointed to a pattern in which Body Worlds opened to sparse crowds but then grew in attendance as early visitors told others about what they had seen. Expanded to a three-year run, Body Worlds drew 2.9 million Japanese visitors.
"Everything changed for me after Japan," von Hagens told John Bohannan of Science . Von Hagens and Whalley organized a Body Worlds exhibit in Mannheim, Germany, in 1997, and there he encountered his first taste of criticism from religious leaders and medical ethicists. Religious figures, however, were split on the merits of Body Worlds . "Some like it because they consider it evidence for the existence of God—who could have made the body better?," von Hagens observed to New Scientist . "Others don't like it because they say the dignity of the people has been taken away. And it also takes away their monopoly over the body and death." Von Hagens sometimes posed his bodies fancifully, following a tradition established in Renaissance anatomical drawings; one, in a tribute to a Rembrandt artwork, wore a top hat. Any controversies that arose may only have fueled the spectacular success of the Mannheim exhibit.
To a degree, the reactions to Body Worlds varied by country. The sharpest attacks came in Britain, where von Hagens fueled the flames by charging admission to a public autopsy he performed, and in Germany, where Andreas Nechama, chairman of the Jewish Congregation of Berlin, likened von Hagens to Nazi guards who made the skins of Holocaust victims into lampshades. Von Hagens was banned from entering the city of Munich for a time. None of the opposition to Body Worlds had much effect in reducing turnout; between June and November of 2002, 550,000 visitors came to London's Atlantis Gallery to see the exhibition. In the more religious United States, although von Hagens was refused a permit to transport some plastinated bodies into the state of Florida in 1998, Body Worlds gained a good deal of prestigious sponsorship. Presenting entities for the Great Lakes Science Center showing of Body Worlds in Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, included the giant Cleveland Clinic medical center.
The most serious charges leveled against von Hagens had to do with the acquisition of his plastinated cadavers. A Russian court convicted a medical examiner of supplying unclaimed corpses to von Hagens's German-based Institute for Plastination, one of several for-profit or academic enterprises he set up in various countries (others were in China and Kazakhstan). However, a Chinese government investigation of a rumor that Body Worlds specimens were the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners found no wrongdoing, and a German court reached the same conclusion. Von Hagens blamed the rumor on a disgruntled employee who hoped to launch a rival exhibition of his own. Body Worlds text panels stated that all of the bodies and body parts on display were those of donors who had volunteered for the process, and indeed every showing of the exhibition attracted donors who hoped for a kind of immortality after death. New controversy flared after the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that von Hagens's father had been a sergeant in the Nazi SS force during the war and had sent Polish prisoners to concentration camps. Von Hagens asserted that there was no evidence showing his father to have been a war criminal. Von Hagens, in rebutting his various critics, pointed not only to the educational value of the exhibit but also to possible health benefits; one of the most remarked-upon areas of the Body Worlds display showed a cigarette smoker's blackened lung, and one independent study of visitors to the exhibit in Germany found large percentages resolving to wean themselves from smoking and other unhealthful behaviors.
Von Hagens welcomed public attention, telling Forbes that "a good teacher is a good showman." None of the controversies dented attendance at Body Worlds , and the show's website as of early 2007 estimated worldwide attendance at almost 20 million. Von Hagens became wealthy; a Forbes magazine study found that he reaped net profits of $40 million from Body Worlds between 1999 and 2006, much of which he reinvested in his various research institutes and plastination centers. He had reason to be wary of potential competitors, for companies in the United States and China launched similar touring exhibitions, such as Our Body: The Universe Within , showing bodies acquired in China and itself the subject of protests by Chinese Americans. Von Hagens mounted two new exhibitions in response, designated Body Worlds 2 and Body Worlds 3 , and his long-range planning included a new Museum of Man to be located in Germany—and plastination of his own body after his death.
Chicago Tribune , August 5, 2005.
Economist , March 23, 2002.
Forbes , January 30, 2006.
New Scientist , March 23, 2002.
Science , August 29, 2003.
Student BMJ , August 2002.
"A Life in Science," Body Worlds Official Website , http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/gunther_von_hagens.life.html (January 21, 2007).
"The Plastination Professor," BBC News, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/2494643.stm (January 21, 2007).