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' two year imprisonment by East German authorities for
political reasons, his release after a $20,000 payment by the West
German government, his 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,
Poland—then part of Germany. 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.
As a child, he was diagnosed with a rare bleeding disorder that
restricted his activities and required long bouts of hospitalization
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.
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
While at the university, von Hagens began to question Communism and
Socialism, and widened his knowledge of politics by gathering
information from Western news sources. He later participated in student
protests against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops.
In January, 1969, in the guise of a vacationing student, von Hagens made his way across Bulgaria and Hungary, and on January
7th, attempted to cross the Czechoslovakian border into Austria and
freedom. He failed, but made a second attempt the very next day, at
another location along the border. This time the authorities detained
him. "While I was in detention, a sympathetic guard left a window open
for me so that I could escape. I hesitated and couldn't make up my
mind, and that decision cost me a great deal," he says.
Gunther von Hagens was arrested, extradited to East Germany, and
imprisoned for two years. Only 23 years old at the time, the
iconoclastic von Hagens was viewed as a threat to the socialist way of
life, and therefore in need of rehabilitation and citizenship
education. According to the prison records for Gunther Liebchen, "The
prisoner is to be trained to develop an appropriate class consciousness
so that in his future life, he will follow the standards and
regulations of our society. The prisoner is to be made aware of the
dangerousness of his way of behaving, and in doing so, the prisoner's
conclusions of his future behavior as a citizen of the social state
need to be established."
Thirty-six years after his incarceration, Gunther von Hagens finds
meaning and even redemption in his lost years. "The deep friendships I
formed there with other prisoners, and the terrible aspects of
captivity that I was forced to overcome through my fantasy life, helped
shape my sense of solidarity with others, my reliance on my own mind
and body when denied freedom, and my capacity for endurance. All that I
learned in prison helped me later in my life as a scientist."
In 1970, after West Germany's purchase of his freedom, von Hagens
enrolled at the University of Lubeck to complete his medical studies.
Upon graduation in 1973, he took up residency at a hospital on
Heligoland-a duty free island where the access to cheap liquor resulted
in a substantial population of alcoholics. A year later, after
obtaining his medical degree, he joined the Department of
Anesthesiology and Emergency Medicine at Heidelberg University, where
he came to a realization that his pensive mind was unsuitable for the
tedious routines demanded of an anesthesiologist. In June 1975, he
married Dr. Cornelia von Hagens, a former classmate, and adopted her
last name. The couple had three children, Rurik, Bera, and Tona.
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.
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.
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 more than 34 million people, in cities countries across Europe, Asia, and North
America. 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, Europe and Asia. "The human body is the last remaining nature in a man
made environment," he 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."
Gunther von Hagens in front of the mega plastinate "Rearing Horse with Rider, 2000".