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, www.bodyworlds.com. 2001 – 2008. All rights reserved.

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