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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 13:21 GMT
The plastination professor
Professor von Hagens pressed ahead with the public autopsy
German professor Gunther von Hagens has carried out the first public post-mortem in the UK since the 1830s, despite a government warning it is illegal. BBC News Online looks at the man behind the controversy.

A professor of anatomy, Gunther von Hagens was born in 1945 in Poznan - now part of Poland - and he grew up near Leipzig, in the former East Germany.

He says his interest in the body dates back to when he was only six. A haemophiliac, he had cut his head and ended up spending six months in hospital.

But it was seeing his first autopsy when he was 17, which he says absolutely fascinated him, that encouraged him to take up medicine.

He began his medical studies at the University of Jena in 1965.

They were interrupted three years later when he was arrested after distributing leaflets protesting against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops


I had long arguments. Is it art or not?

Professor Gunther von Hagens
He spent nearly two years in prison and was only released after the West German Government bought his freedom, along with other political prisoners.

At the time, the government would hand over as much as DM1m to the East depending on whom they were getting. They paid DM43,000 to free Prof von Hagens.

In the West he continued his studies at the University of Lübeck, which he completed in 1973.

In 1974, he received his license to practice medicine and moved to the University of Heidelberg, where he completed his doctorate in the Department of Anaesthetics and Emergency Medicine in 1975.

In the same year he married and went on to have a son and two daughters.

He was a 32-year-old "scientific employee" at Heidelberg when, he says, he invented his plastination technique one January evening in 1977, almost by accident.

Multi-millionaire

The process involves replacing the natural body fluids with a solid plastic which both preserves the tissues and gives rigidity, enabling the corpse and organs to be displayed in any conceivable position.

Von Hagens says he started without any artistic pretensions.

The idea of displaying his work beyond the world of medical research took root in the late 1980s when he showed some of his work at an open day at Heidelberg University and later at various conferences.

In an interview in Sunday Telegraph, he said more and more people started to visit.

"The librarian and the cleaning lady . . . and they asked their children and friends to come," he told the paper.

"I had long arguments. Is it art or not? And I always said, no, no, no - but then I realised the people see the specimens in an emotional way.

'Body pride'

"It goes beyond information. I understood step by step that plastination opens the hearts of the people to themselves. They recognise themselves, get a new kind of body pride."

Bodyworlds, his anatomical exhibition of preserved human corpses and body parts in varying phases of dissection, has attracted an estimated eight million visitors since it first opened in Japan in 1995.

He says the object of the exhibition is "education and enlightenment".

In 2002 he brought the exhibition to London. It has been a huge success with over 550,000 visitors since it opened in June, according its organisers.

The exhibition at London's Atlantis Gallery is scheduled to run until February 2003.

Its success here, and in half a dozen other countries, has made him a multi-millionaire.

Since 1996, he has established plastination centres within universities at Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan, and in the Chinese coastal city of Dalian, where he is currently based.

He plans to be plastinated himself when he dies, along with any member of his family who wants to.

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20 Jul 02 | Europe
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