Von Hagens is the pathologist who invented plastination, a process that preserves animal tissue through the replacement of water in the tissue with polymer. This has led to the use of plastic dead people supplementing traditionally-preserved cadavers in anatomy classes in medical schools. More famously (or infamously, depending on your viewpoint), Von Hagen's silicone stiffs have been displayed as art and sent out on tours of exhibition.
[A note of caution: There are pictures below the text that follows which may be upsetting to those sensitive to gore and images of the dead. Do not scroll down much further if the pictures above were distasteful to you.]
Why do I post about Von Hagens now? Well, I'd recently posted a link to an article at the blog Oddee on the "Top 10 Mad Scientists in History," and was a bit surprised not to see a mention of Von Hagens. His exhibition of fractionated and posed bodies, and his public autopsy (controversially broadcast live in England) earned him the sobriquet "Frankenstein"-- and I'm fascinated by all things Frankensteinian. This apellational analogy he disputes. As reported by the BBC, VonHagens has said, "In all human history - except for the renaissance - the human body was always exploited for disgusting feelings. I'm doing the opposite. Those plastinates show the beauty of our body interior. I break with the tradition of Frankenstein." (Maybe-- but many folks do report "disgusting feelings" after viewing his post-mortem handiwork, though I'm not one of them.) And I post on Von Hagens now partly because I was trolling through old photo files in my computer -- and found the pictures used in this post. (I don't know where they came from, but will give credit if notified, or remove if requested by the owners of the photos.)
Also, as a modest collector of monster toys and collectables, I have a fascination with "plastic dead men," as fellow collector Joseph Fotinos (a/k/a Prof. Griffin) calls his monster figures. I have pondered, with mixed feelings, on the fact that Von Hagens has turned the human body into a kind of plastic toy for display to curious adults. (Some of the "plastinates" also remind me of jack o' lanterns; both have generic faces, and both have been carved up for show.)
Von Hagens, as a man who has often been called 'Dr. Frankenstein' in the press, has also vilified for making "monstrous" creations, as in these anonymously posted comments at a BBC website:
"Von Hagens has displayed his plastinates in a manner in which all internal organs - nerves, blood vessels and bones - can be viewed by the public, thereby giving an insight into the human body...Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesal, the two outstanding anatomical artists of the Renaissance, used anatomical drawings to better understand the workings of the human body. Von Hagens is fascinated by their work, but wrote 'Neither illustrations nor models can convey the individual beauty of these structures to us, for the source of truth is in the originals' and so has taken their work a stage further. Salvador Dali's painting 'Burning Giraffe' portrays a woman standing on stilts with drawers in her legs and torso. Von Hagens has recreated Dali's nightmare in a grotesque manner as 'Drawer Man' using a stout male corpse. The recreation of Dali's work is exploiting the human body; it has resulted in something purely fictitious taken from Dali's dreams being made into something real. Although Dali's painting is disturbing there is something genuinely monstrous about von Hagens taking a real human body and creating a storage unit from it."
For some, this objectifcation of dead flesh is reminiscent of human souvenirs found at Buchenwald. But not all use of human flesh for making objects has been as widely condemned. There is a controversial precedent in the use of human tissue for mixed educational and artistic purposes: creating books from the skin of the dead. A number of prestigious libraries have several such books. (My wife might think that would be a good use for my shortened carcass when I have passed on. She can already read me like a book now!)
Do I object to the display of voluntarily donated plasticized bodies? Well, no, not strongly. I was raised by a physician father who told me anecdotes of his days in medical school and who had graphic textbooks and slides. His work conveyed to me the message that seeing the human body dispassionately and with curiosity (even damaged, malformed or dead ones) was not wrong, if one had compassion for others.
Besides, this is like some movie starring a Boris Karloff-type mad scientist crossed with the plot of House of Wax or Bucket of Blood--I can't help being intrigued by it all. (Speaking of House of Wax, it turns out that Von Hagens is not the first medically-trained man to find a way preserve bodies in a way that would allow for posed display; a man named Honore Fragonard was similarly controversial for preserving bodies with a special injected wax--and this was 200 years before Von Hagens!)
But there has been a larger, legitimate concern: whether or not any of the bodies displayed were executed prisoners. Five years ago Von Hagens was criticized for not being certain that all his cadavers were voluntarily donated, and after some bad publicity about his Chinese plastination plant he did return a few bodies to the authorities that had bullet wounds to the head, and the bodies were buried. (He admitted he couldn't be certain they weren't prisoners.)
Some say exhibits like Von Hagens' desensitize people and make them less compassionate. Do they really? I don't know the answer to that. I had mixed feelings when I saw the rival Bodies exhibition that toured the U.S. last year. (I wrote about it here and here.) I felt some horror, but I've enjoyed movies that create similar feelings ever since I was small. I am wrong to have liked films like Psycho or Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte? I know they are fiction, but they depict violent acts that really do happen. Should people only view scenes that are uplifting? I say, "No."
Are pathologists just naturally an odder lot than their fellow physicians? Probably not, but when I think of Von Hagens, I also think of eccentric pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian, (a/k/a "Dr. Death"), the man on a mission to kill suicidal terminally ill people. Both are passionate about their causes (or, arguably, business, in Von Hagens' case), and both have demonstrated a love of odd headgear (Von Hagens is never seen without a black fedora, and Kevorkian once wore a powdered wig to his trial on second-degree murder charges.) But I associate the two mainly because I've wondered if the two shouldn't hook up--Kevorkian could "supply the meat", and Von Hagens could be "the boy who buys the beef"(to quote an old rhyme about body snatchers Burke and Hare and their customer, Dr. Knox.)
Finally, the photos and some related links:
The Gunther Von Hagens website.
Marc Steinmetz Photography: A collection of professional photos taken at Von Hagens' plant, along with the photographer's thoughts on what he observed.
A petition to stop von Hagens.
An interview with Von Hagens.