Ten years ago, in a small German village bordering the Polish border, anatomist Gunther von Hagens transformed a derelict factory into a space to preserve human specimens after their death.
The Plastinarium is like a museum, replete with 16,500 corpses that have been given new life using plastination, a technique that von Hagens invented in 1977 at Heidelberg University's medical school. Rurik von Hagens, Gunther's son, now runs the 3000-square-meter facility in Guben, Germany since his father has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
In a vacuum chamber, silicone and other polyurethane polymers are injected in lifeless corpses, preventing the natural process of withering decay. The skinless corpses have been used in medical schools across the globe, enabling future anatomists to understand how diseases affect the body. Each body takes about 1500 hours to plastinate and color to give a life-like appearance to cadavers.
Since developing plastination, the von Hagens corporeal empire has grown to encompass the Body Worlds exhibition, which by their estimates has drawn over 40 million visitors see the insides of the human body. The visceral experience prompts many to donate their bodies for scientific purposes after entering the mummified museum.
The Plastinarium's body donors include a pregnant mother and her fetus that raised ethical concerns when on public display. Yet, von Hagens maintains that the plastination process has revolutionized medical knowledge and visually unearthed the complexities of the human body. "It has become accepted in society, the cultural battle is mostly over, but the fascination is very much the same", he told Motherboard.
Visitors in Germany can see how around 40 scientists dissect, embalm and plastinate bodies revealing the tissues and the labyrinth of vessels mechanically connecting the specimens.
Growing up with his eccentric and visionary father, Rurik said he dissected bodies throughout his life. "My father had garages all over Heidelberg storing the specimens and we would drive in an old VW bus during the holidays dissecting. That's how I made extra pocket money," he said.
He said the Plastinarium is a way to carry out his father's desire to "democratize anatomy", making the entire human body accessible to anyone who has the stomach to see it. Meanwhile, the thousands of body donors who participate know that their flesh and bones have a life after death.
"They want to do something useful with their bodies, after they're deceased, instead of being eaten by the worms."
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