Body Worlds brings new life to the dead

ST. LOUIS — A perfectly preserved body, devoid of skin, emerges from its coffin, tendons, blood vessels and back muscles exposed, and tosses aside its shroud to greet the city. "The Emerging Skeleton," part of Dr. Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 3: An Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies exhibit, which opened today at the Saint Louis Science Center, is like a medical student's version of "Night of the Living Dead."

Body Worlds 3, the newest tour of von Hagens' exhibits, clarifies recent and ancient mysteries about human anatomy with more than 200 specimens, perfectly preserved organs and bodies that illustrate anatomical networks.

"Instead of looking at outer space, we're looking at the inner space to see the incredible universe that's inside of all of us that we know so little about," said Doug King, president and CEO of the Saint Louis Science Center.

The exhibit begins with a recap of human fascination with the phenomenon of death and claims to serve as a reminder of the shared fate of mortality.

"Body Worlds is first and foremost a place of science and education," said Angelina Whalley, the creative and conceptual designer for Body Worlds, the director of the Institute for Plastination and von Hagens' wife. "But, what is more important, it is a place for meditation on life."

One display compares the lungs of a non-smoker and smoker, whose lungs are black from tar deposits, as well as from two people who had pulmonary cancer and emphysema.

A separate display illustrates the effects of arthritis.

"As a physician, I operated with treating patients one by one in hopes that they'd get healthy," Whalley said. "But Body Worlds allowed me to practice preventative medicine, to let them know how beautiful we are, but at the same time how vulnerable and fragile our body is."

One walk-through display showcases the development of a fetus from the end of its fourth week to the 33rd week when its features are prominent.

"I'm still moved when I see young women lingering around the fetal area and experience this for the very first time," Whalley said. "Or when kids or teenagers come with their leather jackets and jeans and finally leave their cigarette packs behind at the showcase where the smoker's lung is because they realize smoking is no longer cool."

At von Hagens' institute in Germany, scientists preserve specimens using an innovative method von Hagens invented in 1977 called Plastination. This is the first preservation method that enables organs to retain their natural colors and aesthetics. After the procedure, specimens remain microscopically identical to their pre-preservation conditions.

"Nothing is as close to us as our body, but there is nothing else that is close to us and about which we know so little," von Hagens stated in a Body Worlds pamphlet.

The three-step process begins by chemically halting organ decomposition with formaldehyde. The specimens receive an additional bath of acetone to replace all bodily fluids and fatty tissue, which helps prevent decomposition.

Plastination is the final step, after the organs undergo vacuumation, which gets rid of the acetone chemical and leaves a polymer, such as silicon, in its place.

Preserving organs in formaldehyde, the method that preceded Plastination, gave all organs a gray color, making it difficult to differentiate between tendons, nerves, blood vessels and other body parts, especially for students, King said.

Von Hagens originally shared his invention exclusively with the medical community, but he developed the Body Worlds exhibitions after realizing the specimens could interest and help educate people outside his profession.

"You have to get people interested and excited, particularly young people," King said. "We have to support their parents and teachers in the lifelong task of turning their excitement and interest into topics that might lead them to a career in science and technology or at least lead them to be informed adults."

Since Body Worlds' 1996 debut, more than 24 million people have viewed the exhibits in at least 35 cities in Asia, Europe and North America.

"This is the best success I could ever dream of for our work, for the Body Worlds exhibition," Whalley said.

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