In 1975, at the age of 30, Dr. Gunther von Hagens accepted the position of Scientific Assistant at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg University – a move that changed the trajectory of his life and, indeed, the way we study anatomy today.
Gunther knew from a very early age that he wanted to contribute to the field of medicine. He aspired to be a doctor, having frequently been hospitalized due to hemophilia – a pursuit he followed for 29 years. After earning his medical license, though, he discovered his disinterest in practicing medicine and, a year later, pivoted to the field of anatomy.
As an Anatomical Assistant, Gunther saw, for the first time, specimens embedded in plastic blocks. He wondered why the plastic had been poured around the specimen instead of inside the specimen, stabilizing it from within. Just two years later, after experimenting with numerous methods and materials, Gunther held in his hands the first presentable Plastinate. This was on January 10, 1977, his 32nd birthday. Two months later, he submitted his process to the German Patent Office.
Over the next 20 years, Gunther served as a Lecturer and Scientist at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg University and all the while continued to enhance the method of plastination. Realizing that his process would preserve human bodies for “didactic eternity, longer than the mummies and pharaohs of Egypt”, and that his specimens would be used for both clinical anatomy and public exhibition, in 1982 Gunther formalized his stance on ethics:
Only people who agreed to be considered for plastination under informed legal consent during their lifetime would participate in the process following their death.
So strong were Gunther’s convictions that he invited 3,000 people registered with the University of Heidelberg’s Anatomy Department Donor Program to join his new Body Donation Program for Plastination. Over half agreed to participate and, in 1993, Gunther opened the Institute for Plastination.