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To many he is nothing more than a fedora-wearing ringmaster of a circus of cadavers. To others he is an accomplished anatomist who, through his invention of plastination (where body parts are preserved by saturating them with polymer resin), has brought an understanding of the human body to lay people.
As we meet, newspapers report that Munich, the show's next destination, has banned the exhibition, forcing Gunther von Hagens to appeal. He is confident that the show will go ahead, attributing the ban to the conservative and strongly Catholic sensibilities of the region. We meet on the penultimate day of the exhibition in London's east end. Meeting von Hagens is like meeting Hannibal Lecter from the film Silence of the Lambs—both are fiercely intelligent and have a finely tuned appreciation of Renaissance art, opera, and philosophy and a passion for flaying dead bodies.
In pictures he appears bloodless and stern, but in the flesh he is surprisingly normal. He has an honest, open face, smiles a lot, and has a conscientious manner.
He wanted to be a doctor from the age of 6, when he spent six months in hospital with haemophilia A. “When I was 6 years old an artery in my forehead ruptured. My head was heavy and my face was wet with blood. I called the nurse and was rushed to the operating room. I heard the doctors say: ‘He will die.’ Before the ether narcosis faded me away I thought, ‘Would it be bad to die?’
“Ever since, I wanted to become a medical doctor. I found it a mystery why doctors took a stethoscope to listen to my chest. I thought, ‘It must be very precious inside me.’”
Born in East Germany, von Hagens left school at the age of 16 and took a number of jobs, including working as a postman and lift attendant. After studying at night school he was eventually accepted by Jena University to study medicine. At the age of 23 he was caught trying to flee to the West with a forged passport and was imprisoned for two years. After his release he completed his medical degree at the University of Löbeck, became an anaesthetist, and opted for anatomy.
He claims that he enjoys being the centre of controversy, saying: “I like the controversy because controversy is democracy.” This is just as well, as he has been surrounded by a great deal of controversy. Some people have suggested that he has illegally traded in corpses from as far afield as Siberia, and others have portrayed him as a Frankenstein figure.
He defends himself vigorously: “Never have any authorities even asked me, charged me, [or] ever suspected I received any body illegally. By law I am entitled to receive unclaimed bodies from wherever I want.” He has set up a programme under which people can sign up to have their bodies plastinated after death. It now has 5200 names.
He is quite happy to be compared to Mary Shelley's fictional character, Frankenstein. “Hollywood has earned a fortune by blending anatomy with body snatching and playing with ambivalent, gruesome feeling. What can be better than to… put me into this tradition?”
His aim, he says, is to make the human body accessible to the general public and to take it back from the people he terms the “keepers of the body”—the church, the medical profession, and the undertakers.
“Modern medicine has hidden bodies in hospitals and universities, and I give them back. The real success [of the exhibition] is that never before has there been such an adamant discussion on what the lay people should be allowed to see.”
This is all very well, but some critics have questioned the educational value of his exhibition and think that his showmanship lacks respect for the bodies. “Respect is a matter of opinion. For me it is much more respectful to show the whole body than if you had a parade of jars: this is a liver, this is a hand. With a whole body… you can never forget that this is a former person.”
Von Hagens recognises, however, that it is because you cannot forget that the figures on display were once people that they evoke such a strong reaction. He says: “The youngest plastinated body is 10 or 11 years old. But I don't show it because I know how much society can bear.”
He obtains consent from the people he preserves through his body donation programme and has regular meetings with potential donors. The youngest people to have registered themselves as body donors are 6 years old. In the case of children, he obtains the consent of parents at the same time.
One of the most controversial pieces in his exhibition in London was the reclining figure of an eight months' pregnant woman with her womb open to show the fetus. It is hard to imagine why the woman thought she might die and how exactly von Hagens managed to obtain her consent to preserve her after death. When I asked him, he said that he could not divulge for legal and confidentiality reasons the exact circumstances in which any of his “plastinates” died, because that might make it possible to identify them.
He would only say: “This lady belonged to what I call short term body donors. These are young people, like my best friend [whom he plastinated], who have a high risk of dying suddenly.
“For example, she may have come to me and said, ‘I have an aortic aneurysm and it is bulging. I have waited for a number of years to get pregnant. Now with the pressure increasing I have a risk that this aneurysm ruptures, but I will take this risk. But because I think constantly about my death I want to clear everything, so my family knows what to do. Therefore I donate my body. If it happens within minutes you are dead with a child.’ The husband calls me, and I have to realise their wish.”
There is no doubt that von Hagens is eccentric, but perhaps he is to be respected for not being afraid to push the boundaries of current thinking. His future plans include displaying corpses as though in the act of sex, for what he calls educational purposes—to show how “easily disease can be transmitted, how an erection functions, showing all the blood vessels.” He has some ideas on “how to do it so that even children can look at it and say ‘Isn’t it wonderful?'”
As we leave he tells me of his plans to be plastinated after his death, to be shown dissecting his own father. “I have discussed it with him,” he says cheerily as we leave. I go away wondering what Freud would have made of that.
Modern medicine has hidden bodies in hospitals and universities, and I give them back