Dr. von Hagens is tall and cadaverous-looking, a hemophiliac who seemingly never appears in public without his signature black fedora. This he also wears during his public autopsies, the most controversial being held in an art gallery in London in November 2002. Despite police threats to arrest the doctor, the show proceeded before a sellout crowd of 500 as giant screens on the gallery walls made plain each stoke of the knife. It was the first public autopsy in England in 170 years. After cutting through the chest of the 72-year-old male cadaver, Dr. von Hagens reached inside and pulled out a great handful of innards, declaring, “I have liberated the lungs and the heart.” People in the first rows covered their noses because of the smell. When the autopsy was shown on nationwide television several days later, the network received nearly 200 telephone calls of protest from men and women who had accidentally tuned in.
Although the doctor’s exhibits are certainly educational, he displays an unusual sense of humor. A Body Worlds exhibition in Hamburg was held in the former Erotic Art Museum in the Reeperbahn, the city’s red-light district, to which Dr. von Hagens invited prostitutes and cab drivers to attend for free. One of the full-body figures, called “Early Bird,” displayed a man with an erection. The doctor said, “That’s something that every healthy man can relate to, and it’s happened to all of us in the mornings and occasionally in the evenings.”
Most plastinated bodies used in Dr. von Hagens’s exhibits and sold to colleges and universities are created at what he calls his “Chinese manufacturing facility” in Dalian, a large compound of well-guarded and unmarked buildings surrounded by a rusted metal fence. In 1996 he became visiting professor at Dalian University and helped to begin its Plastination program. Many employees at his factory are or have been medical students from the university. Dr. von Hagens is also director of a Plastination research center at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The doctor’s factory employs about 300 people who prepare about 800 bodies at any given time. It takes four to six months to plastinate a body, or up to 1500 hours, though some of that time is spent soaking and curing the body. A Chinese reporter for redOrbit described bodies on tables “surrounded by ‘dissectors,’ many of them medical students…hunched over the bodies, picking out fat and tissue with tweezers.” A New York Times reporter wrote about the final stage of preparation in “the positioning room where about 50 medical school graduates clean the bodies and pose them in lifelike positions for the traveling exhibitions.” The factory also produces books, DVDs, and stuffed toys with flaps that open to show the organs within. Animals are also plastinated at the factory, from rabbits all the way up to an elephant.
Although Dr. von Hagens has been accused of using bodies from Chinese prisons, he says that all his bodies have been donated and come from many countries, but he adds, “All the copycat exhibitions are from China, and they all use unclaimed bodies.”
Dr. von Hagens’s method of Plastination is no longer protected by patents, which has allowed about a dozen other Plastination factories to spring up, mostly in the Dalian area. One of them produces the bodies used in Bodies… The Exhibition and is owned by Dr. Sui Hongjin, a former general manager of Dr. von Hagen’s factory, whom Dr. von Hagens says he fired for stealing his secrets and setting up his own operation.
Anyone trying to calculate the number of bodies used in the different exhibitions, institutes, laboratories, and museums must be stunned by the possible numbers. Ten thousand? But quite a few bodies must have been discarded during experimentation. Twenty thousand? Even though Dr. von Hagens no longer holds all the patents, he must be a wealthy man. His company, Biodur Products in Heidelberg, run by his second wife, Dr. Angelina Whalley, sells all the chemicals and materials for Plastination. Dr. Whalley, whom Dr. von Hagens married in 1992, is also listed as manager of the Plastination Institute and is business manager and designer of the Body Worlds exhibitions. The Biodur Products illustrated 20-page catalog not only has the expected silicone polymers and epoxy resins but also huge freezers, dehydration containers, and basic Plastination packages with all the equipment necessary for the home hobbyist. The smallest package allows for Plastination “up to the size of a human head.” Dr. von Hagens claims that only when his own Biodur polymers are used can high-level success be achieved. He dismisses the work of all his competitors as “shoddy.”
Entering the lobby of the UTC exhibit was similar to entering any museum or theater, with the gift shop to the right and velvet ropes guiding the curious to the ticket windows. During my life I’ve mostly tried to avoid face-to-face encounters with corpses. In fact, I tend to think of them as bloodless and gray, or splopped with gore, and mushed, gashed, sliced, perforated, or smashed in ways designed to upset my stomach. So I rather dragged my feet. But I needn’t have worried.
These corpses were pink and the very picture of health, without a trace of gore. And they were active — kicking a football, dribbling a basketball. They clearly enjoyed life, and their glass eyeballs were eager and alert. Even without skin, or with windows open to various organs, there was nothing discomforting about them. They seemed not like dead people but friendly extraterrestrials. They were young, good-looking Asians with nothing cadaverous about them. The exhibit’s various rooms were dimly lit with spotlights that illuminated the dead, while lighted display cases showed individual bits and pieces. And the visitors were fascinated. It was hard not to be. Looking at one of the figures was like seeing myself in a mirror. So that’s what I look like inside, I thought.
The rooms were crowded, and people bumped into one another. Children in particular were mesmerized. Reviews that had compared the exhibits to pornography, arguing that to “gawk” at human remains was immoral, seemed foolish, while the many attempts to ban the exhibits and forbid school field trips seemed excessively timid. Near the exit were half a dozen books of viewer comments in which the word “awesome” figured prominently, along with “fantastic,” “amazing,” “cool,” and all their synonyms. I saw no complaints. “I thought I’d wet my pants,” wrote one person. Henry from the Santa Ana Boxing Club wrote: “I thought it was interesting because of the cool dead bodies. P.S. I want my body in this place when I pass on.” One girl wrote, “I don’t understand the myth about Asians having small wangs, these guys were better hung than my boyfriend.”