Why I... think it is high time we democratised the science of anatomy

March 29, 2002

Gunther von Hagens Professor of anatomy, Dalian Medical University, China, and inventor of plastination

Representatives of the British anatomical establishment have accused my exhibition Body Worlds of sensationalising and trivialising anatomy. They obviously have not seen it. The majority of the 8 million people around the world who have done so have reacted with almost reverent interest. I believe this is because the exhibition, featuring corpses preserved by the art of plastination, which I invented and developed, answers a great need in modern society to understand our bodies.

Far from trivialising anatomy, I aim to educate. The holistic exhibits offer people an insight into the complexity of anatomical structures. And, by comparing normal and diseased organs, people can see for themselves the effects of excess alcohol or smoking. Indeed, a survey by Kassel University in Germany found that 10 per cent of people who had visited the exhibition had cut down or given up smoking as a result. Second, it reminds us of our mortality and gives death a new face. Christian belief has always neglected the body, so people have a great need to understand it.

The Anatomical Society of Great Britain and the British Association of Clinical Anatomists also contend that the negative publicity surrounding my exhibition could deter people from donating their bodies for medical experimentation. My experience is exactly the opposite. In my 20 years as an anatomist at Heidelberg University I never experienced a student or patient donating their body to scientific research. But during my exhibition in Germany an average of five people a day did so, knowing exactly what would happen to it. Now 4,500 people have signed a declaration of will to be used as plastinates.

The controversy surrounding the exhibition has been stronger in Britain than elsewhere, and I believe this is because the restrictions surrounding donations for anatomical study are so tight. This has fed the taboo and secrecy surrounding anatomy and has contributed to incidents in which body parts have been taken from corpses without relatives' consent.

I think it is high time for Britain to democratise its bodies and the functions of the body. The denial of death is a modern phenomenon of the medical industry. Until the end of the 19th century there were anatomical displays in public theatres all over Europe - but now ordinary people are not allowed to see them. I think my exhibition, which people pay an entrance fee to see, is more democratic than anatomical education, for which the public pays through taxation but is not allowed to see.

If my work shocks people, as my critics contend, then it is an aesthetic shock, not a cruel one. Hollywood has done a lot to associate anatomy with the horror and emotional distress of dying. But my work is very different. I put specimens in a celebratory setting. The aesthetic helps people to understand the body. I see it as an enlightenment, which is a part of science. Far from degrading anatomy, I think my work dignifies it. It is much more dignifying than the conventional use of specimens, in which body parts are cut up and put in jars. The unique process of plastination, in which the liquids and tissue of the human body are replaced with polymers giving them a fresh, plastic appearance and texture, makes them beautiful.

Throughout history there has always been a struggle between what ordinary people are allowed to see and what professionals may see. At one time, the Bible was not allowed to be read by laymen. More recently, it has taken 20 years to democratise nudity of the skin, so it is unlikely to be any different in this case - to show people more than naked. It will take time to win acceptance.

Body Worlds opens at the Atlantis Gallery, East London, tomorrow until September 29.

Gunther von Hagens Professor of anatomy, Dalian Medical University, China, and inventor of plastination.

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