History of Dr. Gunther von Hagens and Plastination

Dr. Gunther von Hagens was born on January 10, 1945, in Alt-Skalden near Posen (Posznan); which is now part of Poland, but was then part of Germany. When he was only five days old, his parents put him in a laundry basket and began their flight west from the approaching Russians. Their travels lasted six months and they passed through Berlin and Gera, ending up in Greiz/Elster. In this Thuringian town in the Vogtland area of (East) Germany, Gunther von Hagens grew up as the middle one of five children.

In Gunther`s early childhood, a bleeding disorder caused frequent hospitalizations, often for several weeks at a time. They make him an outsider and eccentric. Fascinated by his close encounters with the medical profession, he decides early on to become a physician.

From 1951 to 1961 Gunther attended the ten grade Polytechnical High School in Gera and Greiz. Having graduated with the intermediate German high school diploma of Mittlere Reife, he started his career as an “untrained person” at the county hospital of Greiz, initially working as a doorman, mail carrier, elevator operator, and eventually as assistant to the nursing staff. However, none of these occupations satisfied him, so he attended school to obtain the higher level High School Diploma, the Abitur. In 1965, he registered as a student with the Medical School of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

At the beginning of 1969 he was taken into custody in Greiz, and was tried and sentenced in the County Court of Greiz to one year and nine months imprisonment for “attempted unlawful crossing of the border” and “attempted violations of the currency regulations” of the GDR. He served his sentence in the Cottbus Penal Institution. Gunther Liebchen`s freedom was bought by the West German Government for 40,000 German Marks, and on August 27, 1970 he set foot on Federal German soil for the first time.

Gunther continued his medical studies at Lübeck University, passing his exams there in 1973. In 1974 he obtained his medical license and accepted a position as an Intern in the Department of Anesthesiology and Emergency Medicine of Heidelberg. While working at the hospital, Gunther quickly discovered that the medical profession with its tedious routines, was not for him after all. Thus, he decided to switch to the field of Anatomy and accepted a position as Scientific Assistant at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg University in July 1975.     

As an Anatomical Assistant, von Hagens saw, for the first time, specimens embedded in plastic blocks, and he wondered why the plastic had been poured around the specimen in a block shape instead of being inside the specimen, stabilizing it from within. This question kept nagging at him, so he began to explore a new method of preservation. It took many, many experiments to find a method for removing water and lipids from biological issues at room temperature, and for replacing them with plastic without causing the specimens to shrink. First, he embedded the kidney slices in liquid silicone rubber, using a slow impregnation method. After hardening the specimen in an incubator, he held in his hands the first presentable Plastinate.  This was on January 10, 1977, his 32nd birthday. In March of the same year he submitted this process to the German Patent Office.

Dr. von Hagens spent the next twenty years at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg University as a Lecturer and Scientist. During this time, he continuously enhanced the method of Plastination. Thus, in 1980, Gunther von Hagens himself, while still working at the university, founded a small business, BIODUR®, to sell plastics and later other Plastination supplies and equipment as well.

Biodur Products continues to produce and retail polymers, equipment & auxiliaries for Plastination. Over 30+ years,  BIODUR® has grown into a global company that counts academic and other institutions as well as individuals among its satisfied customers. The continuing refinement of the Plastination Process, the worldwide interest in it, and the continuing high demand for their products fostered a commitment to innovation. Their commitment is reflected in an expanded product range, which allows the user to stay on the cutting edge of technology, environmental protection, and industrial safety. Its current turnover is c.€300,000 per annum.

Throughout this time, Dr. von Hagens had always maintained a distinction between Clinical Anatomy and Public Anatomy, between the use of bodies without consent common in Clinical Anatomy for the training of medical students, and the ethical imperative for informed legal consent in the case of Plastination and eventually public anatomical exhibitions. The reason for this is very sound. In clinical anatomy, after students have dissected a body and used every part of it for medical study, it is given a ritualized finality either through cremation or burial. In Plastination, there is no such finality, the body is preserved permanently.

By 1982, Dr. von Hagens was firmly convinced that informed legal consent had to be the ethical backbone of his science and the organizing principle of Plastination because plastinated bodies would be preserved, in Dr. von Hagens words, for “didactic eternity, longer than the mummies and pharaohs of Egypt.”

His convictions were so strong that he began the world’s first body donation program for Plastination. He wrote to more than 3000 people who were registered donors in the University of Heidelberg’s Anatomy Department Donor Program telling them about his new science and inviting them to become donors in his new Body Donation Program for Plastination. 1600 of them were interested and became the first donors. In 1993, the Institute for Plastination took over the management of the Body Donation Program.

With the creation of the Body Worlds exhibitions, there were new elements to be taken into consideration: that of public display and the charging of admission to the public to view the plastinated specimens. Dr. von Hagens consulted philosophers, ethicists, religious, and medical professionals to refine his thinking on the importance of informed legal consent. It seemed clear that there was a fundamental human right at stake, a human right that was inviolable–that of an individual’s right to choose his or her own post-mortal state. It was quite clear to him that it would be ethically untenable to have a deceased person undergo plastination to be put on display in a museum setting—without his or her informed legal consent.

As of July 2012, this program, the source of the bodies in Body Worlds, has more than 13,300 donors worldwide, 12,172 living donors and 1138 deceased donors. There is a cultural and racial dimension to body donation to the Institute’s program. Most of the donors are German because that is where the Institute is based, and also because 7+ million Germans have seen Body Worlds, with about 2 visitors a day seeking inclusion in the Institute’s body donation program. Body donation to science is in keeping with the cultural history, traditions. and sensibilities of Germans. The second largest group are North Americans. There are 1385 living donors and 30 deceased donors from North America.

Excluding a small number of specimens acquired from historical anatomical collections and anatomy programs, the plastinated specimens on display in Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibitions stem from this Body Donation Program.

At the same time as he developed the Body World’s Exhibits, Dr. von Hagens continued to evolve the Plastination method and it eventually stretched the limits of its university home. Thus, in 1993, Gunther founded the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg with his second wife, Angelina Whalley, whom he met as a young colleague in 1987 and married in 1992. Now he was able to conduct plastination on a commercial level. The IfP in Heidelberg was where the techniques for preparing whole-body plastinates and transparent slices of whole bodies were perfected. The complexity and work involved in preparing these specimens far exceeds the capacity of most interested institutes. Preparing a technically correct, whole-body plastinate requires 1000 to 1500 man-hours.

The aim of the IfP is to produce human specimens and make them available for basic and continuing medical training, as well as for the general medical education of the public. The specimens are prepared solely for this purpose and only passed on directly to recognized educational and research establishments and scientific museums, but not to private individuals or dealers. The objectives of the IfP can be summarized as follows:

  • Improving overall anatomical instruction
    The IfP produces high-quality educational specimens for anatomical instruction at universities and other teaching institutions.
  • Improving awareness of medical issues, particularly among the general public
    The IfP produces plastinates aimed at educating non-medical professionals and restores public access to the anatomy of the human body.
  • Popularizing and developing plastination techniques
    The IfP disseminates plastination expertise around the world, allowing other teaching institutions to profit from this unique process. The IfP also pursues scientific objectives and strives continually to develop and refine the techniques of Plastination and the resulting anatomical specimens. It is aided in these endeavors by visiting scientists and scholarship holders from national and international universities.

There are now more than 400 plastination laboratories in 40 countries around the world using Plastination to prepare specimens for academic study. Despite all of the progress made to date, the need for further research is immense. Tests need to be performed, for instance, on new polymers that could be used to retain the color of tissues and to improve plastination results for specimens such as the eye, which are difficult to preserve.

Every two years, participants at the International Plastination Conference have the opportunity of exhibiting the plastinates that they have produced. In addition, the “International Society for Plastination” and its publication “The Journal of Plastination” (former “The Journal of the International Society for Plastination”)  provide additional forums for experts in the field to exchange information concerning advances in the scientific application of the process. Current issues include how slice Plastinates can be used to show complex systems such as the blood supply to the bones of the wrist or how to display subtle structures such as the muscles and nerves surrounding the prostate. These tissues are critical for proper sexual functioning and understanding them is an extremely important means of ensuring precision when planning delicate surgical procedures.

Dr. Von Hagens great breakthrough, however, was not achieved until 1995 when he was invited by the Japanese Anatomical Society to participate in an exhibition at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition is surprisingly successful – it was visited by more than 450,000 people in only four months. It was followed by other successful exhibitions in Japan, until, in 1997, the plastinates are shown for the first time in Mannheim, Germany.

Unlike in Japan, in Germany the Body Worlds exhibition is accompanied by stark public controversies that are triggered again and again by later exhibitions. Body Worlds finds supporters and opponents in all segments of the population, and even the Anatomical Institute in Heidelberg is split into two fractions. The disputes make it impossible for Gunther von Hagens to continue working there, and so he left the university at the end of 1997. At the same time he was refused recognition of his private Heidelberg Institute as a research institution by the German government. Consequently, he turned his back on Germany and in 1996 accepted a guest professorship at Dalian Medical University in China. In 2000, he founded another private institute, the Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Company, Ltd.. By 2002 enough material for a second exhibition was created there. The new exhibition toured Asia and was shown for the first time in Seoul, Korea with overwhelming success and was even officially supported by science and education departments.    

In Europe however, especially in Germany, the controversy surrounding the exhibition refused to die. It focuses more and more on the person Gunther von Hagens, culminating in personal disparagement early in 2004. From then on, von Hagens concentrated on his work in the USA and took his exhibition there in the same year. In the United States, just as in Asia, no public criticism of Body Worlds was heard. Subsequently, in January 2005, Gunther von Hagens was invited to become a visiting professor at New York University`s College of Dentistry. 

In 2006 he returned to Germany and founded the Gubener Plastinate GmbH with its public exhibition space, the Plastinarium in Guben, Brandenburg. For the first time ever, the general public had an opportunity to see the laboratories of anatomist, scientist, and inventor of Plastination. The Plastinarium. It is a unique facility that combines the moving experience of seeing a Body World’s Exhibition with an opportunity to witness firsthand some of the practical steps of Plastination. Located in a former cloth factory that has been renovated and equipped with the latest machinery, it has 3,000 sq.m. of exhibition space and a fully operational Plastination laboratory.

The Plastinarium is the result of Gunther von Hagens` untiring efforts over 39 years in the areas of medical science, anatomy, dissection, and polymer chemistry. With his revolutionary invention of the Plastination process, Gunther von Hagens not only significantly changed the study of anatomy, but also the way the human body is viewed in our society today.

Gunther von Hagens did not hold another Body Worlds exhibition until 2009, 5 years after he had left Germany. This time, he took the exhibition to Heidelberg, the birth place of Plastination. Ever since then, the Body Worlds exhibitions have been shown all over Germany. Once again, they are accompanied by unfortunate debates and regulations. For example, the mayor of Augsburg prevented a sexual plastinate from being shown in that city. 

The debut of the new Body Worlds of Animals exhibition took place at the small zoo of Neunkirchen, Saarland, Germany, in 2010. The initial impulse for this exhibition had been the death of a female elephant, Samba, at the Neunkirchen Zoo in February, 2005. In working on the elephant, Gunther von Hagens fulfilled a wish of Dr. Norbert Fritsch, the director of the Neunkirchen Zoo. He had donated the giant body to the Institute for Plastination, with a reciprocal agreement that Neunkirchen would be the first place where the plastinate would be shown. Since the spring of 2013, the animal exhibition has also been shown in the United States.   

Late in 2010, Dr. Gunther von Hagens announced that he has Parkinson`s disease. Since then, he rarely makes public appearances.