′Body Worlds′ Creator Performs Public Autopsy | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 21.11.2002
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'Body Worlds' Creator Performs Public Autopsy

A controversial German professor conducts the first public autopsy in Great Britain in 170 years. But police still aren't sure whether he broke the law.


"Body Worlds" creator Gunther von Hagens poses with his chess partner.

A controversial German professor treated an audience of 500 to a particularly gruesome sight in a London brewery on Wednesday evening: an autopsy.

Defying British authorities, Gunther von Hagens dissected the corpse of a 72-year-old man on Wednesday -- the first public autopsy in Britain in 170 years. Police still haven't decided whether it was illegal.

"This is a democratic country and I'm sure there will be no arrest," the professor told the media before the dissection.

Von Hagens believes he found a loophole that will protect him from legal action. British law requires licensing for medical school dissections but not for post mortems. The doctor neither had permission to perform autopsies in Britain, nor was the venue -- a brewery in London's East End -- licensed for the practice. If convicted von Hagens could be sentenced to three months in prison.

"We will review the evidence and see if any offence has been committed," a London Police spokesman said.

Von Hagens carried out the post mortem on a German who died last March. The doctor cut the corpse open from shoulder to shoulder, removing the corpse's organs, which were than passed around the audience. Later in the evening the autopsy was broadcast on British television with the consent of the dead man and his family.

Bodies are odorless, durable

The 57-year-old professor is the initiator and organizer of the controversial exhibition "Body Worlds" which has displayed skinned human and animal corpses to nine million visitors since it first opened in Japan in 1996. The exhibit is the result of von Hagens groundbreaking work in the preservation of bodies while at the University of Heidelberg in 1978.

He calls his technique of corpse preservation “plastination.” Plastinated corpses are durable, lifelike and odorless and are used institutes worldwide for research and instruction.

The exhibition has been shown intermittently over the past five years throughout Germany and has drawn criticism from the religious circles and legal experts, among others.

"Like Parma ham"

The Catholic and Protestant churches started an anti-Body Worlds campaign when the show came to Berlin in February 2001. The churches object to the way von Hagens deals with death and accuse him of disturbing the rest of the dead.

Pastor Ernst Pulsfort called the exhibition, which features flayed corpses "like Parma ham" posed as a chess player and a headless horseman, "shameless and irreverent." Pulsfort held a Catholic requiem for the dead people displayed in the Berlin exhibition.

In Germany and Britain people have taken legal action against "Body Worlds," claiming that the exhibition disturbs the dead and abuses corpses for artistic aims. None of the accusations has held up in court though -- German judges ruled that von Hagens exhibits aren't corpses in a legal sense.

Negative publicity

While controversy has attracted attention to the show, von Hagens detractors have also dealt him some blows. In March 2001, a German TV current affairs program alleged that one of the bodies had a tattoo showing it came from a Russian prison camp.

Half a year earlier von Hagens had indeed contracted the Anatomical Institute of the University of Novosibirsk to deliver around 150 brains and some 50 bodies to him in Heidelberg. Von Hagens insisted that the bodies displayed in Berlin had already been prepared before the Siberian business deal came about and that the tattoo belonged to a German man who he had personally known. Nevertheless, von Hagens cancelled the contract to avoid further bad publicity.

"Body Worlds" remains popular, despite -- or perhaps thanks to -- the controversy surrounding it. Five people a day signed disposition forms to donate their bodies to the Heidelberg Institute for Plastination during the Berlin exhibition, a German newspaper reported.

Whether or not von Hagens is arrested for performing the autopsy, the publicity will surely translate to more visitors to "Body Worlds." The exhibition is now being shown in London and Seoul.

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