Object of the month: A plastinated slice

9 October 2013

 C0051409 Plastinated body slice with frontal cut

As our curious journey progresses, Medicine Now remains open as (un)usual, and this month Charlie Morgan takes a look at one of the most controversial objects in the gallery.

In July’s Object of the Month, Muriel Bailly provided an excellent analysis of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp and used the ivory model to explore the history of anatomy, dissection and the feared ‘Resurrection Men’. Muriel ended by noting that the UK Anatomy Act of 1832 finally stipulated legal means by which doctors could obtain bodies for dissection and effectively ended the gruesome practices of grave robbing and anatomical murder. This was a great step forward, but the passage of the Act was not without controversy. The Anatomy Act specified that unclaimed bodies could be handed over to medical science and, in practice, this meant those found in workhouses, in prisons and at the side of the road. Clearly, this had a strong class dimension to it, and what was previously a punishment for criminality now essentially became one for poverty. Noted orator William Cobbett lamented the Act for this very reason:

… they tell us it was necessary for the purposes of science. Science? Why, who is science for? Not for poor people. Then if it be necessary for the purposes of science, let them have the bodies of the rich, for whose benefit science is cultivated.

Despite these objections, the Act became law. While there was now a route by which specimens could be obtained, the human body was still on the whole seen as a sacred entity, and to most people it was a horrifying thought that you could be tampered with after death. It was only much later on, and long into the 20th century, that these ideas were challenged on a mass scale and that notable amounts of individuals began to willingly donate their bodies to medical science. For anatomy – a practice that had historically suffered from acute undersupply – this was a massive shock to the system. It is this that brings us up to date and a specific subsection of anatomy where supply, for the first time ever, outstrips demand. Enter plastination.

Gunter von Hagens is widely seen as one of the greatest anatomists of his day and has effectively revolutionised one of the oldest fields of human understanding. His breakthrough came with the insight that we were maintaining bodies in the wrong way and that perhaps it would be better to apply preservatives not to the outside of the body but to the inside. It is from here that he developed the technique of plastination, and it is a plastinated slice of a human being that you can currently see in the Medicine Now gallery.

In its most basic form, plastination is the replacement of organic liquids with synthetic alternatives. After death the fluids are removed from the body and replaced by a series of plastic resins. This halts the process of decomposition and creates long-lasting medical specimens. The plastics used form such a direct replacement that after completion a plastinated body weighs almost exactly the same as it did when alive. Notably the plastics harden in such a way that the body can be moulded into various positions, but also – as in the case of the specimen in Medicine Now – they can be directly cut down the middle into a series of slices.

Plastination has become most widely known through the travelling Body Worlds exhibition, which was shown in London in 2002. The exhibition has been displayed all across the world but has encountered strong opposition in several locations. Critics question whether plastination dangerously blurs the line between science and art, whether there can ever be complete consent for the process and finally, and with a nod to the history of anatomy, whether the body is really something that should be ‘messed’ with and put on public display. All of these questions are equally raised by the slice in Medicine Now.

As I alluded to earlier, von Hagens is in a unique position with regards to obtaining bodies to work upon. Unlike previous anatomists, he faces an oversupply of bodies; while you may find yourself repulsed at the idea of being plastinated, there is actually a long waiting list of donors. Owing to the eagerness of individuals to be plastinated, it perhaps seems strange to question the validity of consent within the process – after all, surely everyone on display knows what’s about to happen to them? In most cases this is true; however, certain reports have brought it into question.

Starting in 2005 the USA-based company Premier Exhibitions began touring a plastinated show entitled Bodies: The exhibition. For this exhibition the bodies were plastinated not by von Hagens himself but by a former pupil turned competitor. Unlike Body Worlds, which obtains 90 per cent of its specimens from Germany, Bodies: The exhibition received its specimens from the Chinese city of Dalian. This became problematic when it began to emerge that a number of the Chinese specimens might not have given any consent at all. Instead, the plastinated bodies were thought to be individuals who had died in prisons. More specifically, they were thought to be followers of the persecuted belief system Falun Gong. Premier Exhibitions did not try to dispel the accusations that they were profiting from state-sponsored killings and released the following ‘disclaimer’:

This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.

Von Hagens had also received specimens from the same institute but has stated that when he found out where they may have come from, he cremated them all and replaced them with ethically sourced alternatives. For their part, Premier Exhibitions have since removed the notice that their bodies may have come from Chinese prisons and instead claim that the specimens are from people who ‘lived in China and died from natural causes’. However dubious that may be in itself, it is perhaps more interesting that they mention the bodies are ‘unclaimed at death’. Given that this doesn’t exclude the unclaimed bodies as having come from prisons, we are strangely drawn back to 1832. After all, in the 100 years that followed the Anatomy Act, 99.5 per cent of bodies that were given to medical science came from workhouses, asylums and hospitals, all of which have been sites of incarceration at certain points in history.

The Anatomy Act was in many ways never completely replaced until the Human Tissue Act of 2004, which set out a whole new framework for human remains. Crucial to this is how specimens may be displayed, and it is here that we find the other major criticism of von Hagens: that his work gruesomely turns humans into art. Like issues of consent, this is not a new dispute. If you examine photos of early dissections, you will see medical students posing with their corpses, dressing them up in clothes and treating them in various ways that would seem reprehensible to us now [1]. In the case of von Hagens, questions are asked about whether his display of, for example, two plastinated specimens engaged in sexual intercourse is really anything other than crass sensationalism. However, if this is the case, it could be said that the objections that von Hagens encounters could equally be directed towards the queues of curious individuals waiting to see what’s on display. Considering it’s estimated that more than 37 million people across the world have seen Body Worlds, it’s clear that plastination sells. In recent years plastination has branched out into non-human specimens (see Animals Inside Outor Sea Monsters Revealed), but it’s arguably that display of humans that attracts the most spectators, and with a return to this in Body Worlds and the Cycle of Life it’s definitely here to stay. For those that identify plastination as an artistic perversion, it has to be asked whether the blame lies at the point of creation or instead at the point of consumption.

Von Hagens himself maintains that plastination is strictly medical and has nothing to do with either sensationalism or art, although when you read his comments you might disagree with his definitions. In the introduction to the Body Worlds catalogue, he gives the following explanation:

From my perspective, however, plastinated specimens are not works of art, because they have been created for the sole purpose of sharing insights into human anatomy. Art, unlike the products of skilled trades and the sciences, is not created for a purpose.

If, however, plastinated specimens are created for a clear purpose, what then is that purpose? For von Hagens it is to enhance our understanding of the human body, but when we look at the reasons given by the individuals that give themselves over to plastination, it becomes a lot more complicated. For some people it is a desire to enhance scientific knowledge, and for others it is a dedication to public art; for some people it is preferable to being eaten by worms, and for others it is a way to show the glory of God’s creation. The reasons given are extremely diverse.

In fact, the reasons given are as diverse as the conclusions that have been drawn from the exhibitions. Despite it being nearly 200 years since the 1832 Anatomy Act, we are in many ways no closer to a universal view of the body than we were then. Recent debates over proposed changes to organ donation law in the UK and the distinct possibility of a future shift from an ‘opt-in’ to an ‘opt-out’ system merely bring these pre-existing conflicts further into our everyday lives. In the centuries-old quest to understand the human body, plastination remains just one part of the grand debate.