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June 27, 2007
After Tokyo, Mannheim, and Vienna, the industrial Swiss city of Basel played host to an extraordinary exhibition, called Körperwelten - Die Faszination des Echten ("Body Worlds - the Fascination of the Real"), that goes far beyond simply blurring the lines between science and art - it erases them. Having drawn more than 500,000 people to Vienna, nearly a million to Mannheim, and over 2.5 million people to Tokyo, Körperwelten is surrounded by a buzz of controversy rivaled only by the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Visitors leave the exhibition fascinated and delighted, but also stirred by unknown emotions, feelings of revulsion in them, and, for many, confusion over the collection's ethical implications.

At issue is the unprecedented public display of 200 real human anatomical specimens - whole cadavers as well as body parts - shown naked, ingeniously embalmed and, in many cases, sliced into a variety of cross-sections. The image seen above, of two dissected bodies, is not of plastic models or Hollywood special effects. It is of 100% real human bodies, from volunteer donors, real people who have, after their death, been magnificently preserved through a revolutionary embalming process developed by Günter von Hagens, a German physician and anatomy lecturer at the University of Heidelberg.




The purpose underlying Körperwelten, according to von Hagens, is to raise awareness of both the beauty and the vulnerability of the human body, something with which von Hagens feels people have lost touch in today's high-tech society. Although von Hagens may have set out with the intention of creating a museum-like teaching tool for the general public, his developments have also heralded unprecedented changes in virtually all aspects of the scientific and educational communities. Decay, a vital process in nature, has been the most overwhelming historical impediment to morphological studies, scientific research, and medical education. Von Hagens' groundbreaking process, which he calls "plastination," is a unique method of preserving tissue in a completely realistic, lifelike state. Plastinated specimens are dry, odorless, durable (von Hagens expects his specimens to last indefinitely), and can, quite literally, allow anyone to grasp the intricacies of the human biological system. Specimens rendered through the plastination process retain their original surface relief and cellular identity, down to the microscopic level.

Körperwelten, the public display of real bodies and body parts, is an entirely new idea. Plastination, however, is not; it was invented by Dr. von Hagens at Heidelberg University back in 1978, and in the twenty-one years since there have been a number of specific applications derived from it. In fact, plastination is today fairly common in the scientific world, and is carried out in many institutions worldwide. Although, for obvious reasons, it went through an awkward stage initially, the process has obtained great acceptance in the research and educational communities, particularly because of the durability and the high teaching value plastinated specimens have.




Process
Generally speaking, the process of plastination consists of four steps: fixation (for which any conventional method can be employed), dehydration, defatting, and plastination. Fixation, which is a technical term for embalming (usually done with a formaldehyde solution), is fairly straightforward and has followed a standard proceedure for centuries. Dehydration, the process' second step, is carried out through a system of -25°C cold acetone baths, which could be considered a high-tech means of freeze-drying (although the process is, of course, far more complicated than that). Once dehydrated, specimens are put in another acetone bath, this time at room temperature, for defatting.

Plastination is accomplished by forced impregnation. The specimen, saturated with acetone, is placed into a polymer solution. When vacuum is applied, the acetone solvent is continuously extracted by means of evaporation, in which its gaseous state creates a volume deficit within the specimen's cells, drawing the polymer into the tissue as its replacement.

For complete physical specimens, this is essentially a drawn out soak-and-replace proceedure, but creating the dramatic cross sections with which von Hagens has created such a stir is a more complex process. The preservation of thin body and organ slices (called "sheet plastination") requires significant investment in both equipment and auxiliaries. Individual organs are cut with a meat slicer, while whole-body specimens containing bone structure are cut with a band saw.

In the standard process, after impregnation the slices (which are anywhere between two and eight millimeters thick) are cured between foils or glass plates. In some cases it is necessary to re-cast the parts with additional resin in a flat, glass-sided chamber; this process yields nearly transparent body slices that allow for extremely detailed studies on anatomical and pathological structures in their topographical context.




Günter von Hagens
Born in 1945 in what is now Poland but was at the time part of Germany, Günter Gerhard Liebchen began studying medicine in 1965, at the East German University of Jena, near Leipzig. While at university, Liebchen became increasingly politically aware and, in turn, politically active. In 1968 a combined force of troops from the Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia, a move which prompted the already a distinguished (as much for his flamboyance as for his scholarship) individual to make an attempt at reaching the West. After several failed attempts at escape, he was arrested and imprisoned for two years by East German authorities. A note from his prison records states that,

"The prisoner is to be trained to develop an appropriate class consciousness so that in his future life, he will follow the standards and regulations of our society. The prisoner is to be made aware of the dangerousness of his way of behaving, and in doing so, the prisoner's conclusions of his future behavior as a citizen of the social state need to be established."

Upon the payment of some $20,000 by the West German government, Liebchen was released from prison in 1970 and resumed his studies, graduating from the University of Lübeck in 1973. Just four years later he had taken a position in the Department of Anesthesiology and Emergency Medicine at Heidelberg University, where he met and married Dr. Cornelia von Hagens and, in the tradition of his iconoclastic ways, changed his last name to that of his wife's. It was in Heidelberg that von Hagens began developing the plastination process, and by 1980 he was running BIODUR, a company that manufactured the machinery and auxiliaries that would allow academic and scientific institutions to carry out the plastination process individually. In 1993 he founded the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg.

The novelty of von Hagens' Körperwelten is that it de-specializes the detailed study of the human body. Never before has it been possible for anyone outside of the medical community to take such a close-up look at the human body and its inner structure. By looking at a dead, plastinated body, one can truly the intricacies of biology's miracle of life.

Another fact that contributes to the overwhelming interest in Körperwelten is its inherent confrontation of death and the intimacy of the human body, which are both traditionally neglected in our societies. Few people in post-War European nations have actually seen a dead body outside of formalized funerals. Von Hagens' exhibition allows people to overcome taboos by literally being in contact with the dead.

As the donor of one of the plastinated bodies, now magnificently preserved for eternity, put it: "Only through remembrance is progress in thought possible. Plastination has granted a new dimension to anatomical thought. To contribute to its progress will be an honour for me."


-------"Rearing horse with rider" took 3 years to create.

Art, Ethic & Morale
It is exactly the overcoming of such

Plastination is relatively uncontroversial. Körperwelten, however, breaks so many cultural taboos through its very nature that discussions on the grounds of ethical and moral reasoning were bound to plague it. Should the dead human body be aestethiziced? Should it become merely a piece of art? Von Hagens has never denied the artistic value of his work - the poses and atmospheres in which he plastinates the bodies for Körperwelten are not given over to the sole purpose of anatomical detail, but also to what could only honestly be considered as entertainment value.

Körperwelten goes beyond the preservation of bodies in technically terms; it also gives them aesthetic value. Some argue that von Hagens adds a special sense of dignity to the mortal bodies of human beings by making them immortal specimens. What a performance artist is in the field of the living, a whole-body plastinate is in the field of the dead, but this line of reasoning could be applied to plastinated single organs as well as to the whole-body specimens that attract the most interest; after all, most people have no idea what a spleen or gall bladder look like, yet alone consider it beautiful, interesting, or dignified.

On one side of the Körperwelten argument lies man's morbid fascination with itself. When standing eye to eye to a plastinated body, looking at the exposed neural system or inner organs, I am fully aware like never before that I look just the same inside. Knowing that the cadaver in front of me used to be as alive as I am, just a couple of years ago, is a bizarre thought, to be sure - but it is also an intellectual stimulant like no other.

There is of course a purely aesthetic fascination with Körperwelten as well, the intrinsic awe of the miracle of a human body. It is this fascination with aesthetics that has led to the most heated discussions about the dignity of the dead human body, many arguing that von Hagens' exhibition is exactly that, a carnivalesque spectacle that turns cadavers into works of art by posing them (as fencers, or as horsemen on plastinated stallions). The debate rages on, but it seems to be one between those with foregone convictions. One male body-donor, still alive but planning to leave his body to science and art, sums up his perspective by saying that, "Michelangelo, Dürer, and Le Corbusier have all been active in the field of anatomical science. It is especially the application of plastination for the progress of art and culture that is fascinating."

Obviously not everyone shares those views. Many people, especially those close to religious organizations, reject anything with even the most remote chances of death becoming a spectacle. In their eyes, the dead body is sacrosanct, should not be publicly exposed, not even when the people explicitly state a wish for such during their lifetime. But then again, these are people led by organizations that, a couple of hundred years ago, universally answered even the most cursory question into the miracle of life with a stake and a torch.

SEE ALSO: www.plastination.com

--
Samuel Klaus
Samuel Klaus, a native of Zurich, Switzerland, is a legal expert and a contributor-at-large for LAS magazine.

See other articles by Samuel Klaus.

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