A. C. Grayling: Review

January 21, 2005

`In an eye-watering moment von Hagens slices a testicle in half with what looks like a large bread knife' ANATOMY FOR BEGINNERS. Channel 4, 11pm daily, January 24 to .

When Gunther von Hagens first put dissected cadavers on display in his Body Worlds exhibition, reaction was predictable. Many felt revulsion and regarded the endeavour as ghoulish. But many got his point: that the human body is an amazing object, that we should all understand it better, and that to properly grasp its intricacy and complexity, nothing beats seeing the real thing.

In Anatomy for Beginners , a series of four programmes aimed at taking this project further, von Hagens introduces human anatomy by dissecting cadavers in real time before an audience and cameras.

The first programme reveals (literally) the machinery of movement - muscles, bones and the central nervous system. The second does the same for the cardiovascular system, and the third shows the digestive system from mouth to anus, all 7m of it being strung out in a line on metal tables.

The last programme opens the reproductive systems to view. In an eye-watering moment, von Hagens slices a testicle in half with what looks like a large bread knife.

Absorbed and sometimes squeamish fascination with the sight of bodies being progressively exposed might distract viewers from an appreciation of the extraordinary genius of von Hagens with the scalpel, and of the gift for clarity exhibited by his partner in the series, pathologist John Lee, in explaining what is being brought to light.

An agreeably handsome pair of naked live specimens, one of each sex, provides orientation for the internal anatomy by standing patiently as a very skilful anatomical artist inscribes their bodies with veins, Fallopian tubes, lungs, arteries, intestines and nerves.

Von Hagens invented "plastination" for preserving cadavers. This involves replacing the fluids in a corpse with a plastic resin that mummifies the body while maintaining the detail of its structures. People who first saw von Hagens' plastinated cadavers at the Heidelberg University were so struck by them that they asked if they could bring friends to see them.

That prompted Body Worlds, in which the human corpse is offered not just as an educational opportunity but a work of art.

Von Hagens is a remarkable man. He was born in East Germany, and he spent two years in prison during the Communist era for demonstrating against the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The West German Government bought his freedom for 43,000 marks, allowing him to finish his medical studies.

His medical interests began early, partly because he is a haemophiliac.

Although he trained as a specialist in emergency medicine and anaesthesiology, anatomy is his passion. It led to his discovery of plastination. "I understood step by step that plastination opens the hearts of the people to themselves," he says, "they recognise themselves, they get a new kind of body pride."

In Anatomy for Beginners the cameras regularly traverse the faces of the audience, comprised of medical students and people who intend to donate their bodies to science, like those whose bodies open before us under von Hagens' hands.

Winces and hand-over-mouth gestures abound. Television audiences will doubtless be even more squeamish.

But despite the uncomfortable sensations that attend seeing a "fresh cadaver" being flayed and progressively eviscerated, one cannot stop watching: the process is too fascinating, and constitutes perhaps the most educative programme ever shown on television.

A. C. Grayling is reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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