your connection to The Boston Globe

German anatomist turninga morbid interest into art

FRANKFURT -- Gunther von Hagens loves his work. This would not be such an issue if his work did not consist of collecting corpses, removing the skin, and arranging what remains into poses designed to best exhibit the human body's inner workings.

He has been called a charlatan, a defiler, Dr. Death, even a criminal by his detractors. But his exhibitions have drawn millions of people eager to study bodies and body parts.

"I go to the depths," von Hagens said recently in an interview at his "Body Worlds" show in a cavernous exhibition hall in Germany's financial capital.

"This is a kind of body celebration; here we are more naked than the naked -- we do not even have our skin."

The 59-year-old von Hagens -- medical doctor by training, university lecturer by profession, artist of anatomy by passion -- wants people to be able to see the beauty beneath the skin, literally. To this end he has amassed a large array of "specimens," as he likes to call them.

Among the displays are the body of a man whose skin was removed and lies draped over his outstretched arm, and the man whose body was cut and stretched so as to better display his internal organs.

"It's so interesting; it's like art, only you get to see how the body is built," said Mannfried Werner, 56, a well-dressed dentist peering closely at one corpse's nervous system. "Look how many people are here."

More than 13 million people have viewed "Body Worlds" since it opened in 1996. Besides Germany, the exhibition has been to London, Brussels, Singapore and Basel, Switzerland, as well as cities in Japan and South Korea. Plans are underway to bring it to the United States in the next two years.

Sometimes, von Hagens also performs a public autopsy, as he did in front of television cameras in London in 2002 during his show's run there. It was the first public autopsy in Britain in more than 170 years.

"I received many respectful letters from people afterward, saying they never knew before how things were done. . . . I feel I made an advertisement for this important medical procedure," he said.

"There's nothing new in what I do; it's just that I do it better," he added with his characteristic mix of modesty and bravado.

That von Hagens does it better is rarely in dispute. As the creator of a special technique to preserve cadavers -- he holds numerous US patents for the so-called plastination process -- he opened the way for lifelike exhibitions of the lifeless.

He also has had remarkable success when soliciting bodies for his show. Instead of dealing with the legal and ethical vagaries of exhibiting unclaimed corpses, whose use is regulated differently among countries, he set up a body-donation program to encourage the living to plan for death. The program, which entitles a person not only to be flayed and dissected but also to get free admission to the show before they are part of it, has signed up almost 6,000 people, von Hagens said. More than 260 donors have been "processed," he said.

"After seeing the exhibition, I was so fascinated and liked the idea of staying in it" forever, said Henk de Lamper, a 55-year-old Belgian executive and future body donor living in Stuttgart.

Not surprisingly, von Hagens has his critics, particularly in his native Germany. Church leaders have condemned him for turning human beings into works of art and entertainment. Prosecutors have considered investigating how he acquires bodies overseas and how he uses them. And the Munich City Council banned his show last year but was forced by the court to let it open.

Last month, the popular weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel slapped him on its cover under the headline "Dr. Death." The accompanying article alleged that he uses corpses of executed Chinese prisoners.

Von Hagens, who dissects and preserves most of his specimens at his company in Dalian, China, but has other facilities in Heidelberg and Kyrgyzstan -- dismissed the accusations, telling Der Spiegel that the two bodies in question were returned because of suspicions that they were executed.

Von Hagens has been accused of dirty dealings before.

Alleged misdeeds include using the body of a Russian prison camp inmate, buying corpses in Siberia, even breaking the law by exhibiting the body of a gorilla that drowned in the Hanover Zoo in Germany. But none of the allegations has been substantiated, or at least not linked directly to von Hagens, and he has always given detailed responses rebutting the accusations.

"When you want to become famous, you say something against `Body Worlds,' " he said with a shrug.

Von Hagens credits his interest in what's under the skin with an autopsy he saw as a teenage male nurse in the former East Germany, where he grew up. He was jailed in 1968 for trying to flee after writing a protest letter. When West Germany paid for his release two years later, he moved there. He continued his medical studies, and later taught anatomy at University of Heidelberg.

But frustration with the quality of specimens, coupled with a real fascination for body parts, led von Hagens to develop a new way for preserving cadavers. It involves replacing body fluids with polymers, after the specimen is immersed in a minus-25 degree acetone bath. This results in a dry, lifelike specimen.

Soon, he decided that he wanted to bring anatomy to the masses and thought up "Body Worlds."

"For me, the biggest compliment is not when a professor of anatomy tells me that the show is good, but when an average person does," he said. "Once, in a public toilet in Cologne, a cleaning lady came up to me and said, `Oh, you are that man who did the show -- my sister got a hip replacement and now I understand why it took three hours.' "

Asked whether he hoped to join his exhibition one day -- as part of the display -- he replied: To do so "is the highest anatomical joy."

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives