The body preservation method of plastination has rose to prominence in recent years with the touring of the Body Worlds exhibition. Despite all the controversy surrounding the exhibit, i.e. the ethics of cadaver display, the origins of the cadavers and the famous ‘sex plastinate’, one cannot deny the impressive development of the method. Plastination was created and has been pioneered for years by the German anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens. The method was invented by the anatomist in 1977. Von Hagens was working as a scientific assistant and was trying to improve the quality of the renal specimens he was working with in his lab. It was this experimentation that resulted in the process known as plastination. The method involves replacing water and lipids with curable polymers (i.e. silicone, epoxy, polyester), these substances will harden, and the result leaves an odourless, durable specimen. Plastination is becoming more prominent in areas of teaching, their long-term survival is appealing to Anatomy departments but there are issues with the rigidity of the specimens. Sometimes this prevents demonstrations of joint movement to students and prevents in depth dissection of hidden features.
Despite some limitations, plastination is an excellent method for displaying cadavers. The Body Worlds website outlines four steps in the plastination process. These include:
- Fixation using formaldehyde (takes 4 hours) and dissection of skin, fatty and connective tissues (takes 500-1000 hours).
- Removal of water and body fat using an acetone bath at freezing temperatures.
- Forced impregnation of liquid polymers after acetone has evaporated from the cells (takes 2- 5 weeks).
- Positioning of the body when it still has some flexibility (can take weeks to perfect).
- Hardening of the specimen is done using gas, light or heat.
The whole process takes up to 1,500 hours or up to one year of work to complete. The technique is highly specialised and time consuming. Despite these limitations, there are over 400 labs in 40 countries all over the world using plastination to preserve donated cadavers for academic study. Here are some of the most prominent, controversial examples from the Body Worlds exhibition.
The Sex Couple
The most controversial of the Body Worlds exhibits shows two plastinated cadavers having sex. Von Hagens has stressed the exhibit is to enlighten the public on the means of reproduction, and he even wrote an open letter to the British public about the ‘Sex Couple’. What the public questioned most was how informed the consent was of the couple that donated their bodies? Did the couple and their families know the cadavers would be put in this position? Should it matter as it is an educational display? These were the questions raised when the ‘Circle of Life’ part of the show opened.
The Foetus Displays and Pregnant Women
Miscarried foetuses and a pregnant woman were displayed as part of the exhibit. Numerous foetuses at different stages of gestation were shown to the public, with a trigger warning sign before entering that area of the show. There were many sensationalised headlines, including one from The Telegraph stating that ‘Flayed babies’ were on display. The use of the unborn obviously contributed to our understanding of foetal development- but given the pro-choice/ pro-life abortion debate it is obvious that consent and ethics became an issue surrounding this aspect of the show.
The Horse and Rider
The display of a rearing horse and rider stands 12 ft tall. The display was debuted in New York’s Times Square in 2013. What may have been the most controversial for the public in this case was the use of an animal as a plastinate (again, we see the issue of consent).
Regardless of the controversies surrounding the Body Worlds exhibit (as well as Von Hagens Himself), the method of plastination has the potential to preserve cadavers for educational use at academic institutions all over the world. Their preservation has the potential to last for years, and the Body Worlds show has reached millions of eager learners amongst the general public in the years since its launch. Are these specimens a money-making scheme? Or an excellent source for anatomy education?
Pashaei, S., 2010. A brief review on the history, methods and applications of plastination. Int J Morphol, 28(4), pp.1075-79.
Riederer, B.M., 2014. Plastination and its importance in teaching anatomy. Critical points for long‐term preservation of human tissue. Journal of anatomy, 224(3), pp.309-315.
Van Dijck, J., 2001. Bodyworlds: the art of plastinated cadavers. Configurations, 9(1), pp.99-126.