Plastination: Interview with Dr. Gunther von Hagens, inventor and anatomist

Dr. Gunther von Hagens invented Plastination—the groundbreaking method of preserving anatomical specimens for study. His BODY WORLDS exhibits are a museum sensation that has brought the post-mortal body to the attention of more than 25 million people worldwide. Beginning Sept. 12, visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science have the chance to see his newest exhibit: Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS 2 & The BRAIN – Our Three Pound Gem: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. Here, Dr. von Hagens answers some questions about his revolutionary technique.

Is it true that the process of plastination takes up to 1,500 hours and up to a year to complete?

Yes, the average time for whole body plastination is 1,500 hours. In the past I have worked on monumental plastinates such as The Rearing Horse and Rider, which took three years to complete. I have also completed work on a giraffe, which took as long. There is also an elephant currently undergoing plastination which will take three to four years to complete.

Tell us about body donors in the exhibitions.

In my emerging vision for BODY WORLDS, I saw the need to establish a body donation program. My previous experience in Communist East Germany, and imprisonment for two and half years for political dissent, had marked me for life. Because I valued personal freedom and democracy to the point of obsession, I knew I wanted the legal consent of donors for the work I was undertaking. I wrote a letter to 3,000 German donors already registered with the University of Heidelberg’s donor program explaining my new invention, and asking them if they wished to donate their bodies after death for Plastination. Of the 1,500 who replied, only one demurred.

The other respondents were as excited as I was about Plastination–they recognized that they were going to be a part of something unprecedented. We talked endlessly about the method, about BODY WORLDS, which then was only a vision in my mind, and how they wished to be presented. They were my partners in a scientific quest, who grew to be my friends. Today the program has grown, and there are more than 8,500 donors and more than 700 Americans.

Why did you donate your own body to plastination?

I believe in using my body after death to teach anatomy to those who come after me. We have thought about how I should best be displayed. My wife feels I should be at the entrance of the exhibit in my trademark hat greeting visitors. My son believes I should be made into sagittal slices and distributed to venues around the world, thus fulfilling my desire to teach at multiple locations at the same time.

How does BODY WORLDS help promote a healthy lifestyle?

People think the exhibitions are about death. They in fact are very much about life and awakening to our own potential. The specimens show the functions, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the human body. They show healthy and diseased organs and the effects of lifestyle choices. One sees BODY WORLDS and realizes that one must change one’s life, like the poet, Rilke said.

What was your reason for inventing Plastination?

The purpose of Plastination from its very inception was a scientific one; I wanted to improve anatomy for medical students at the University of Heidelberg, where I was a researcher teaching anatomy. The specimens of that time, embedded in polymer, like a cherry frozen deep inside an ice cube, were not good enough, or so I felt at that time.

What is plastination in simple terms?

Plastination halts decomposition of the body after death by replacing all bodily fluids and soluble fat with reactive polymers that harden with gas, heat, or light. After hardening, the plastinated specimens are rigid, odor-free, and permanent. The body cells and natural surface structures retain their forms and are identical to their condition prior to preservation, down to the microscopic level.

Why did you create public anatomy?

It was purely by accident. The janitors and other service workers at the University of Heidelberg where I taught, and people outside the medical profession, who visited my lab on campus were fascinated by the specimens. This interest in anatomy by lay people inspired me to think of public exhibitions. It helped that I didn’t want to be locked up forever in the ivory tower, and wanted to teach the public. Later the Japan Anatomical Society asked me to present an exhibition to marks its 50th anniversary. The exhibition was such a success I began to reconsider the idea.

Why look at death up close?

The older I get, the more I realize that death is normal and that it is life that is the exception. But in order to know life, we must embrace death.

What is your hope for BODY WORLDS?

My hope is that BODY WORLDS will be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of viewers.

What do you want people who visit BODY WORLDS to come away with in terms of understanding or awareness?

I don’t think we can know where we are going unless we know what we are and where we come from. People are curious about themselves in the context of an unfathomable universe. If we can begin to understand ourselves, we can begin to fathom the unfathomable. I think this is really my hope for BODY WORLDS that visitors find it a source of enlightenment and contemplation, of philosophical and religious self recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life and the viewer.

What’s next for you?
I am interested in health advocacy presenting anatomy in the context of the humanities and the latest findings in health and science. For example, I am working now on The Human Saga, a series of special features inside the BODY WORLDS exhibitions. The first chapter of The Human Saga, The Three Pound Gem, is on the brain and neuroscience, coming to Houston. The second chapter, The Story of the Heart, is now in Los Angeles, and will begin the third, The Mirror of Time, a special on aging.

Check out a video of the new exhibit in the original announcement.

Gunther von Hagens (Dr. Med)
Institut für Plastination
Heidelberg, Germany

Images © Gunther von Hagens, Institute for Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany, 2001 – 2008. All rights reserved.

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don’t ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.

Looking Back…

In case you were wondering about notable events that happened the weekend of August 29…

Creative Commons License photo credit: eflon

On August 29, 1885, German inventor Gottlieb Daimler patented the world’s first motorcycle. Although an earlier bike had been introduced as early as 1867, the previous model ran on steam. Daimler’s model ran on petroleum, and was essentially a motorized bicycle. The bike was never marketed and sold – it was developed for experimental purposes only.

On August 30, 1836, the city of Houston was founded by Augustus Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen. They purchased 6,600 acres along the Buffalo Bayou. They named the city after Texas hero, General Sam Houston.

Kodak Six-20 Flash Brownie
Another early Kodak camera.
Creative Commons License photo credit: John Kratz

On September 1, 1969, the first automatic teller machine was installed in New York. Currently, the most northerly ATM is located in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, while the southern most ATM is located at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

On September 4, 1888, George Eastman registers the trademark Kodak and receives a patent for his camera, which uses roll film. However, nobody in his first photograph said the word “cheese.” The roll film also was used by Louis Le Prince, Leon Bouly, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers to make movies. He sold 100 cameras by 1896; the first sold for $25.

Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time

All eyes have been on China for the last few weeks as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and many other Olympians have been shattering world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Media coverage was intense – but this particular video on the Terra Cotta Warriors caught our eye, because we’re eagerly anticipating May 18, 2009 – opening day for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardian’s of China’s First Emperor at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here, Dirk gives us more context on these extraordinary treasures.
Dateline: 240 BC
Mighty Celtic tribes, far from being barbarians, rule over most of what is Western Europe today. Engaged in long distance trade with the Mediterranean, they will soon fall under the sway of an upstart from that region: Rome. Across the water on the northern shores of Africa another mighty empire blossoms: Carthage. It too will eventually fall under the sway of Rome. Further east, Egypt had long faded from its glory days and is ruled by descendants of a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great. The famous library in Alexandria is either in the planning stages or has just opened. Meanwhile, more than 7600 miles away, on a windswept hill in Oaxaca, traders from the city of Monte Alban set off to visit the big metropolis further north, Teotihuacan, to strengthen trade ties between these two cities.
China - Great Wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: mckaysavage

All of these cultures and all of these nascent empires are small fry, however, compared with what is happening in the Far East. There, in China, In 240 B.C. Ying Zheng, ruler of the Qin Kingdom, rose to power. He proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin, or Qin Shihuangdi.

Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule, Chinese script was standardized, as were its currency and system of measurements. The territory was expanded into Vietnam. A huge central bureaucracy directed military and civil officials throughout the empire. This system of government remained virtually unchanged until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with longevity. He sent emissaries to find an elixir of youth to ensure that he would live forever. Unfortunately, death caught up with him in 210 BC while he was traveling far away from the capital. His mortal remains were brought to his tombs, a trip which required his entourage to engage in a number of subterfuges to mask the smell of death in the convoy. It is said that a cart of rotting fish was pulled right behind the imperial sedan chair, to mask the decaying remains of the emperor.
In death, as in life, the emperor remains an imposing figure, leaving us with an incredible and imposing legacy. His tomb (for this link, hit cancel to start the video) has been located, but not yet excavated. According to historical sources, the emperor’s tomb was laid out in such a way to represent the entire empire, with huge pools of mercury representing rivers, lakes and seas. Gemstones set in the tomb’s ceiling represent the night sky. As was becoming a man of his rank, he was accompanied in his tomb by an army of servants and soldiers.
Creative Commons License photo credit:

In 1974, the same year in which Lucy was discovered, a peasant working the fields in the shadow of the imperial tomb, found fragments of a terracotta statue. This chance discovery led to one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries of the 20th century; the army of terracotta soldiers. Approximately 8000 terracotta statues have been uncovered thus far. All of these require restoration and preservation, with some of these requiring up to one year’s worth of work before they can be displayed.

Until May 17, 2009, you will have to travel 8300 miles from Houston to go see these famous terracotta warriors in their Xi’an museum. However, starting May 18, there will be 20 statues in your own backyard. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be hosting them until October 16, 2009. More information can be found here.