A New Approach to Teaching Anatomy

Traditionally, medical students familiarize themselves with the human body through a process of removal. First they remove the skin from the corpse, then they detach muscle after muscle from the limbs, and finally conclude by removing the chest and abdominal walls. After removing the organs, the remainder of the body is—to use their own rather telling term—"dissected down" to the bones and ligaments. According to medical encyclopedias, anatomy is a teaching discipline within the field of medicine; it is based on the dismemberment of the dead and concerned with the form, composition, and structure of the human body up to and including the most intricate details of its tissues, functions, and prenatal development.

Considered in this light, Plastination does not differ from traditional anatomy in any way. As an innovative preservation method, it does, however, make it possible to create completely new types of specimens. When the polymers harden, for instance, muscles that would ordinarily be slack can provide support, allowing the body to be displayed in a variety of unusual poses, either in its entirety or in various stages of anatomical dissection. It is even possible to take a body that has been dissected into components of interest and stretch it in all directions, thereby creating gaps that allow for informative glimpses into the body and reveal structural relationships that would otherwise remain hidden.

Plastinates are able to convey far more than man-made, three-dimensional models, simply because they have come into being via the natural, individual growth of human bodies—models, on the other hand, have at some point had to be consciously designed. Sometimes plastinates even communicate more than untreated anatomical specimens. Transparent slices of tissue, for example, allow observers to trace the course of even the most minute nerves into the depths of the body. The gray matter visible in slices of the brain is easier to distinguish from the white medulla oblongata than is the case with a fresh organ. When the physical/chemical process is performed properly, even small, microscopic bundles of cells retain their original form. The result is a visually arresting plastinate—the ideal method for displaying a preserved body in a way that sheds light on the functions of its structures.