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Remarkable Exhibit is the Result of ‘Plastination’

September 22, 2008

By James Thalman Deseret News

First off, it’s called “plastination.” Neither the process for plasticizing biological remains now on display at The Leonardo in downtown Salt Lake nor the word existed before 1992.

Both are the multi-patented creations of German scientist Guenter von Hagens, a doctor, polymer chemist and hemophiliac originally from what is now western Poland. He became interested in medicine as a young boy during a six-month hospital stay when he continually hemorrhaged from a small cut.

It wasn’t a case of “physician, heal thyself,” but an idea for a better way for medical students to examine the inner workings of humans in particular. A way to permit the close, extensive examination of organs, their structure and the multi-myriad intricacies of our internal terrain, which had been limited mostly to models and specimens encased in plastic that were even less detailed than the 1,200 two-dimensional drawings and engravings in the 1918 medical student bible, Gray’s Anatomy.

“Dr. von Hagens managed to develop and perfect a high-tech interface of the medical discipline of anatomy and modern polymer chemistry,” Lisa Davis, spokeswoman for The Leonardo where Body Worlds 3 is on display, told the Deseret News. “Some people might think it’s morbid, but his work and the exhibit brings us face to face with the wonder of the human body and our own mortality that is stunning and ultimately life-affirming.”

Plastination allows polymers to preserve individual organs and tissues down to the cell, halting decomposition with specially designed chemical reactions combined with 20 different unique polymers that starve out the natural colonizing putrefaction bacteria after death.

Von Hagens’ process begins after the skin as been removed and the internal parts have been completely dissected. The trick to plastination is its ability to overcome the natural chemical incompatibility of bodily fluids and plastic. Von Hagens developed a way to exchange water in the tissues — which makes up 70 percent of the human body — and fatty tissues with the quickly evaporating solvent acetone.

Dr. Angelina Whalley, creative and conceptual designer of the exhibition, director of the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, and wife of von Hagens, said the key to the success of the process is the “forced vacuum impregnation” of the plastic into each and every cell.

That occurs when a specimen is placed in a vacuum chamber and the pressure is reduced to the point where the solvent boils. The acetone dehydrates the body and then is suctioned out of the tissue at the moment it vaporizes. The resulting vacuum in the specimen causes the polymer solution to permeate the tissue, she said, noting that complete saturation of the tissues of an entire body can take several weeks.

Figuring out the next step — which particular polymer is right for a particular organ or tissues — is where von Hagens has focused his work the past 16 years. The polymers must be very thin and react to various levels of light, heat and gases, Whalley said. They also must be able to resist yellowing, must be compatible with human tissue and must result in the desired look and feel of the finished specimen.

The dissected parts are reassembled and configured for optimum visual display using ropes, wires and needles — a skull cut into thirds with a brain caught in a small orbit around the outside; a thin body-length collection of straws showing the complete nervous system. One body will take up to 1,000 hours to reassemble and pose. The exhibit’s famous man on a rearing horse took more than three years.

The completely inert but incredibly detailed results of the process left those browsing the exhibit on opening day generally speechless. At the case showing the human head displaying just the blood vessels surrounding the skull are a bright red mass of threads as thin but 100 times more plentiful than the strands in a spider web. One 14-year-old said he couldn’t believe how delicate the network appeared — like someone looking through a hollowed out a ball of cotton candy. The corner of a set of lungs riddled with emphysema and soot from smoking looks like a black doily.

“Curiosity brings people in,” Davis said. “But as soon as they see the first figure, the talking stops and a kind of a hushed reverence takes over. There’s what you look like running from the inside. There’s your heart caught in action, and there are the 33, 100-gallon barrels representing the volume of blood it pushes through you in just one day. There’s life, inside out and caught in stride. You can’t help but appreciate the intricacy and feel somehow both humbled and ennobled by it.”

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com

(c) 2008 Deseret News (Salt Lake City). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.




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