If you went to the Science Museum in Richmond, Virginia anytime from May 25th until September 23, 2012, you would find access to the renowned anatomy exhibit “Body Worlds” by Gunter Von Hagens. This exhibit includes specimens of actual human tissue that have been preserved to essentially become plastic. This unique process, plastination, was named and invented by Dr. Hagens while serving as a resident and lecturer at the University of Lubeck’s Institute of Pathology in 1975 (Johnson 2011). Over the next six years he would patent the process. Over the next 30 years, he would turn his method into a traveling exposition capturing the attention of and churning the stomachs of hundreds of thousands.
The process of plastination begins with a specimen. While “Body Worlds” is typically geared toward human specimens, this process can be done with nearly every organism (notably, cats, goats, bulls, giraffes, and horses) (A Brief History, 2010). There are five major steps to preparing the specimen for display (Walter 2004).
1. Embalming and Anatomical Dissection
The first step of the process involves pumping preservatives through the body to kill all bacteria and chemically stop decay. Using dissection tools, the skin, fatty and connective tissues are removed in order to prepare the individual anatomical structures.
2. Removal of Body Fat and Water
In the next step, the body water and soluble fats are dissolved from the body by placing it into a solvent bath (e.g., an acetone bath).
3. Forced Impregnation
During forced impregnation, silicone rubber, replaces the acetone in the body. The specimen is immersed in the silicone and placed in vacuum chamber. The vacuum promotes the exchange into the tissue.
After vacuum impregnation, the body is positioned as desired. Every single anatomical structure is properly aligned and fixed with the help of wires, needles, clamps, and foam blocks. One of the most well known of Hagens’ work, the Horse and Rider are seen below in this phase.
The Horse and Rider are seen being positioned. Many large specimen take over a year to complete the plastination process. This step is known to take the longest and requires the most finesse.
After vacuum impregnation, the body is positioned as desired. Every single anatomical structure is properly aligned and fixed with the help of wires, needles, clamps, and foam blocks.
5. Curing (Hardening)
In the final step, the specimen is hardened. Dissection and Plastination of an entire body requires about 1,500 working hours and normally takes about one year to complete. The final Horse and Rider specimen is seen below.
A Brief Review on the History, Methods and Applications of Plastination. (2010). International Journal of Morphology, 28(4), 1075-1079.
Johnson, B. (2011). Plastination. American Funeral Director, 134(3), 48.
Walter, T. (2004). Plastination for Display: A New Way to Dispose of the Dead. Journal Of The Royal Anthropological Institute, 10(3), 603-627.