The Plastinarium of Dr. von Hagens
From a German border town on the banks of the river Neisse, the anatomist Gunther von Hagens commands a fortress of death. The former textile mill has glorious skylights and a facade of dark red brick, but inside it’s faded and forlorn. A spray of Allied bullets left dents in the metalwork, and grenade blasts have chipped the masonry. The end of World War II split the town of Guben right down its gut like a miniature Berlin, a wound from which it never quite recovered, and von Hagens’ palace seems to have suffered from its own, more private reconfiguration: Dormant forklifts dot the courtyard next to bits of fencing and piled rebar; water drips from 20-foot ceilings in the dormitories; floral wallpaper sags off yellowed plaster.
This wilted splendor gives way, in places, to the fundamental work of von Hagens’ business—the extraction of body parts and sale of preserved remains. A few years ago, he spent $50 million to turn this run-down site into a global headquarters for his Body Worlds exhibits, fitted out with tanks of acetone (for defatting tissue), high tech freezers, and a morgue. In one corner of the yard, a refrigerated warehouse holds a band saw big enough to rip an elephant in half. In another, the carcass of a giraffe lies at the bottom of a swimming pool, its spots turned pale in a solution of ethanol and water. The animal’s tail is tucked between its legs, and its neck lies along the pool’s diagonal—the only way it fits. The giraffe is being kept pliable for dissection. But it could just as soon have been frozen whole and sliced into millimeter-thick sheets. Preserved with plastic, these could end up in lecture halls or museum displays, or added to an archive in the rooms upstairs, where parts of animals and people are kept in bins marked BRAIN and FOOT and SCROTUM.
The 68-year-old scientist who runs this factory of desiccation and dissection spends his days shuffling through its corridors with his lapdog, Bella. They are often the only living things in sight, and Bella’s yaps echo among the carved-up corpses that line the halls in obscene and fabulous poses. One looks like a flayed Harry Potter, riding on a twisted broomstick that is, upon closer examination, his own spinal cord. Another sits with a rod in hand, dangling a fish, while his body has been exploded into parts that hang from a rack on fishing lines. There are horse heads too, their flesh corroded to reveal clouds of blood vessels, and yaks and pigs with their ribs spread out like wings. Von Hagens calls the place his Plastinarium. It’s the first permanent display of specimens from his stupendously successful traveling exhibition of flesh preserved with plastic. Body Worlds has made its way to London, Tokyo, Istanbul, Boston, and scores of other cities since the 1990s; it has inspired copycats and lawsuits and sold more than 35 million tickets.
As a young lecturer at the University of Heidelberg in 1977, von Hagens developed a laboratory trick that at first seemed of interest only to a dwindling cadre of macroscopic anatomists: a way to impregnate slices of kidney tissue with plastic. Soon he’d made the process work for whole dissected bodies. He starts with regular embalming—the injection of formaldehyde into femoral arteries—and then submerges the body in acetone, which dissolves its fat and water. After that he drops the corpse into a basin filled with liquid polymer. It’s placed inside a vacuum chamber, where the acetone bubbles off as plastic pushes in to take its place.
It took years to get the details right, but eventually von Hagens figured out a way to turn his method into a morbid empire, devoted to the processing of animal and human cadavers, with outposts in Kyrgyzstan and China. At its busiest, the complex in Guben employed 220 people and churned out specimens for exhibition, along with those that could be sold to medical schools around the world—limbs and joints for orthopedics, jaws for dentistry, spinal columns for neurology, and $75,000 plastic-filled corpses for gross anatomy.
But on the morning of December 29, 2010, the anatomist, inventor, and entrepreneur stood at the center of his factory, before his army of employees, and began to cry. The business that he’d worked so hard to build was crumbling. Revenue from Body Worlds had begun to taper off, and sales of body parts to universities had always been propped up by the exhibits. His plastination plant in China was nearly defunct, and his would-be partnership in Siberia had ended in a scandal. Here in Guben, the operation had gotten to the verge of bankruptcy. The staff would have to be cut back, von Hagens said; two-thirds of his employees would be let go.
This is a really fascinating and poignant article that charts both the decline of von Hagens’ empire and his health - he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2008. You can read the rest here.