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Gunther von Hagens

Gunther von Hagens

A Life in Science

Gunther von Hagens' life reads like an archetypal scientist's resume—distinguished by early precocity, scholarship, discovery, experimentation and invention. It is also the profile of a man shaped by extraordinary events and marked by defiance and daring.

Von Hagens' pioneering invention that halts decomposition of the body after death and preserves it for didactic eternity, his collaboration with donors including his best friend, who willed and entrusted their bodies to him for dissection and public display, and his role as a teacher carrying on the tradition of Renaissance anatomists, make his a remarkable life in science.

Anatomist, inventor of Plastination and creator of BODY WORLDS — The Original Exhibitions of Real Human Bodies — von Hagens (christened Gunther Gerhard Liebchen) was born in 1945, in Alt-Skalden, Posen (in today's Poland). To escape the imminent and eventual Russian occupation of their homeland, his parents placed the five-day-old infant in a laundry basket and began a six-month trek west by horse wagon. The family lived briefly in Berlin and its vicinity, before finally settling in Greiz, a small town where von Hagens remained until the age of 19.

Early childhood

As a child, he was diagnosed with a rare bleeding disorder that restricted his activities and required long bouts of hospitalisation that he says, fostered in him a sense of alienation and nonconformity. At age 6, von Hagens nearly died and was in intensive care for many months. His daily encounters there with doctors and nurses left an indelible impression on him and ignited in him a desire to become a physician. He also showed an interest in science from an early age, reportedly "freaking out" at the age of twelve during the Russian launch of Sputnik into space. "I was the school authority and archivist on Sputnik," he said.

Medical school

In 1965, von Hagens entered medical school at the University of Jena, south of Leipzig, and the birthplace of writers Schiller and Goethe. His unorthodox methods and flamboyant personality were remarkable enough to be noted on academic reports from the university. "Gunther Liebchen is a personality who does not approach tasks systematically. This characteristic and his imaginativeness, that sometimes let him forget about reality, occasionally led to the development of very willful and unusual ways of working-but never in a manner that would have harmed the collective of his seminary group. On the contrary, his ways often encouraged his fellow students to critically review their own work."

Invention of Plastination

In 1975, while serving as a resident and lecturer - the start of an eighteen year career at the university's Institute of Pathology and Anatomy - von Hagens invented Plastination, his groundbreaking technology for preserving anatomical specimens with the use of reactive polymers. "I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic. It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimens from within and literally allow you to grasp it."

He patented the method and over the next six years, von Hagens spent all his energies refining his invention. In Plastination, the first step is to halt decomposition. "The deceased body is embalmed with a formalin injection to the arteries, while smaller specimens are immersed in formalin. After dissection, all bodily fluids and soluble fat in the specimens are then extracted and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers such as silicon rubber and epoxy," he says. After posing of the specimens for optimal teaching value, they are cured with light, heat, or certain gases. The resulting specimens or plastinates assume rigidity and permanence. "I am still developing my invention further, even today, as it is not yet perfect," he says.

Preserving anatomical specimens for medical instruction

During this time, von Hagens started his own company, BIODUR Products, to distribute the special polymers, equipment, and technology used for Plastination to medical institutions around the globe. Currently, more than 400 institutions in 40 countries worldwide use Gunther von Hagens' invention to preserve anatomical specimens for medical instruction. In 1983, Catholic Church figures asked Dr. von Hagens to plastinate the heel bone of St. Hildegard of Bingen, (1090-1179), a beatified mystic, theologian, and writer revered in Germany. His later offer to perform Plastination on Pope John Paul II foundered before serious discussions.

Institute for Plastination and BODY WORLDS exhibitions

 In 1992, von Hagens married Dr. Angelina Whalley, a physician who serves as his Business Manager as well as the designer of the BODY WORLDS exhibitions. A year later, Dr. von Hagens founded the Heidelberg-based Institute for Plastination, which offers plastinated specimens for educational use and for BODY WORLDS, which premiered in Japan in 1995. To date, the exhibitions have been viewed by 45 million people, in more than 119 cities countries across America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. His continued efforts to present the exhibitions, even in the face of opposition and often blistering attacks are, he says, the burden he must bear as a public anatomist and teacher.

"The anatomist alone is assigned a specific role-he is forced in his daily work to reject the taboos and convictions that people have about death and the dead. I myself am not controversial, but my exhibitions are, because I am asking viewers to transcend their fundamental beliefs and convictions about our joint and inescapable fate." Apparently determined to exhaust the limits of living in freedom, Dr. von Hagens has made a concerted effort to travel and propagate his interests around the globe. He accepted a visiting professorship at Dalian Medical University in China in 1996, and became director of the Plastination research center at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek/Kyrgyzstan. In 2001, he founded a private company, the Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Ltd., in Dalian, China. In 2004, Dr. von Hagens began a visiting professorship at the New York University College of Dentistry. He is currently in the process of designing the first anatomy curriculum in the United States that will use plastinated specimens in lieu of dissection.

Gunther von Hagens' BODY WORLDS exhibitions are currently showing in America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, and now for the first time ever, in New Zealand!

"The human body is the last remaining nature in a man made environment," von Hagens says. "I hope for the exhibitions to be places of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer."