How ‘Body Worlds’ Inspired People to Leave Their Bodies to Science

Photo by Brett Neilsen

Why do people leave their bodies to science, or more specifically medical research? And what exactly does that entail for them, after the fact? Writing for The Guardian, David Derbyshire delved into these questions, exploring the motivations behind donation, as well as what the actual process looks like. In the excerpt below, he discusses the touring Body Worlds show—”a display of dissected human corpses preserved using a process called plastination”—and its effect:

Body Worlds artfully straddles the line between education and entertainment. When it first came to London in 2002, it generated controversy for the way the bodies – skillfully preserved by replacing the water in cells with resin and then artfully dissected – were arranged.

More than 40 million people have seen a Body Worlds show worldwide; 180,000 people saw the most recent in Newcastle. The show features all von Hagens’ trademark qualities. It is thought provoking, technically accomplished and playful. At the entrance, visitors encounter a skeleton in a running pose handing a baton to a figure made of soft tissue. On closer examination, both figures turn out to be from the same donor. Another body was dissected in the pose of a fisherman with hundreds of body parts suspended in mid air on fishing lines, a version of the “exploded” diagrams normally seen in a children’s Dorling and Kindersley science book. It says something about the human response to corpses that the atmosphere in the exhibition was cathedral like. Outside the voices of children filtered through from the nearby cafe. But inside, among the bodies and tasteful dark drapes, tones were muted. At the exit is a consent form, filled in by an anonymous donor – a reminder that these are not plastic mannequins, but once living people. Von Hagens has no shortage of donors. His exhibitions have used 1,100 bodies – but he claims to have another 12,100 living donors signed up. One is Emma Knott, a PR consultant in London. “I was so inspired after I saw the exhibition], which is why I made that decision,” she says. But does she have reservations? “Not really, I mean let’s face it I’m going to be dead.” For her, the attraction lies in encouraging people to get excited about science and anatomy. “The bodies looked so incredible and beautiful and I just thought that would be a fantastic thing to leave once you have left the world – to be preserved in that fashion.”

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