Gunther von Hagens: Under the skin of Doctor Death

Is he merely the sinister creator of a human freakshow, or a scientific visionary whose spectacular exhibitions have opened the eyes of millions? Jeremy Laurance meets the controversial Dr Gunther von Hagens
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The Independent Online

By any standards, Gunther von Hagens is a wealthy man. His Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated corpses – flayed, displayed and arranged in "heroic" poses – was a sensation in London in 2003 and has gone on to tour the world. It has expanded into three travelling shows, currently all in North America, which have been seen by 23 million people and, arguably, changed the way we view the dead.

He has "body factories" in China and Kyrgyzstan producing new exhibits, a laboratory in Heidelberg and homes in London and New York. And now he has embarked on the biggest project of all – creating the world's largest institute of anatomy on the site of a derelict factory in Guben, a small town two hours from Berlin on the Polish border.

Next week, his latest TV series starts on Channel 4. Called Autopsy: Emergency Room, it examines the impact of accidents and assaults on the body by (in his trademark fashion) using a genuine corpse to demonstrate what happens when humans are stabbed, or strangled, or involved in a car crash. It is certain to cement his reputation for ghoulishness while winning a new audience – if one slightly green around the gills – for the miracle of fragile engineering that is the human body.

But this 62-year-old multimillionaire does not own a car, wears cheap clothes, flies economy and, when in Guben, likes to walk across the border into Poland for supper because "the food is good and half the price compared with Germany". For frugality, he has few rivals. Nor is he saving his wealth for his three children, all in their twenties. He protests when I suggest that his Institute of Anatomy may be their legacy.

"I am not doing it for them. I do not feel obliged at all to give them money. I have paid for their education, but to subsidise their living would not make them stronger. My father enriched me with his clear beliefs and values, not with his money."

If his children (Rurik, 26, Bera, 24, and Tona, 23) are to be left to make their own way, what will he do with his money? He pauses, searching for the correct English phrase, before declaring with a flourish: "A euro not spent in my lifetime is a stinking fish."

Gunther von Hagens is an enthusiast and unashamed showman whose one desire is to share his enthusiasm with a wider public. He is no ghoul, despite the slightly sinister black fedora permanently clamped on his head, and his favoured black leather jerkin. He is, however, single-minded in the way many eccentric scientists are. As his second wife, Angelina Whalley, whom he married in 1992, has observed: "Sleeping, socialising, going out, dancing, visits to the theatre... they are all, to him, a waste of time that keeps him from doing something useful, from pursuing his goals."

The scale of his plans for the derelict property in Guben, a former hat and glove factory spread across two acres, is breathtaking. He takes me on a tour of the site, gloomy and forbidding in the rain, stepping around puddles, crossing cobbled courtyards, peering into dank, dripping halls. In one, a white, embalmed corpse is visible on a metal trunk, being unpacked by four workers who turn to look at us curiously.

Rounding a corner into a narrow entrance, we have to stop and back out to allow a plastinated corpse being carried by two stout women and a middle-aged man to pass. They cross the courtyard in the rain, the man shouting an explanation over his shoulder.

Gunther – the name by which he is known to all his employees – is unfazed. His staff greet him with warmth and he is anxious to be open about his activities, inviting me to see whatever I choose. We climb to the observation tower and survey his empire – a huge complex of crumbling buildings, many windowless and roofless, with doors swinging off hinges and debris everywhere. It looks like a money pit to me (he has no financial backers: "Too risky," he says) but to him it is the realisation of a dream.

"It is a big gamble, yes. Am I worried? No. I want to show the human body as it has never been shown before. My ambition is to democratise anatomy. Before 1998, when I came on the scene, anatomy books contained no lifelike poses. Now they all have them. I gave anatomy life."

Work has already begun on two huge dissecting rooms, each the size of a tennis court, which are newly plastered and painted, with new windows. These, he says, will be used by medical students who will come from all over Germany and beyond to learn the art. "That will be the animal house," he says, airily indicating a roofless building, three stories high, where giraffes, elephants and other beasts will be eviscerated, plastinated and preserved for posterity. In his factory in China, a giraffe and an elephant are almost complete. A huge flayed horse was the centrepiece of his 2003 London show. "I go for big, awe-inspiring species. People like grandeur, they like surprise."

There is a completed TV studio of distressed brick and lacquered floor, where the Channel 4 series was shot in front of an invited audience. Huge stainless-steel vats of acetone occupy another restored building, used for de-fatting corpses. A derelict building next to the animal house he has dubbed the "Body Church"; here, 700 people from all over the world who have pledged their bodies to the institute after their deaths met in September to hear his plans.

The ground floor of the main building, a quarter of a mile long and the only part open to the public, houses the Plastinarium, where visitors can see the whole process of plastination from start to finish, with a series of 15 bodies spectacularly displayed. They include a leaping footballer seemingly suspended in space and a long-haired giant, wrapped around a bicycle, whose body has been sliced and extended to one-and-a-half times normal size.

Von Hagens lives on the floor above, where the vast, bleak administrative offices are. His quarters are spartan – his bedroom is empty save for a double bed with turquoise duvet, and a bicycle. He has an office, a shower and a kitchen that looks untouched. Wherever he is – Germany, China, the US – he is only ever passing through, on a ceaseless mission to show the world the wonders of our internal landscape.



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Many people who, in 2003, witnessed Von Hagens perform the first public autopsy in Britain for 170 years, an event that brought him a worldwide audience, dismissed him as a "spooky Kraut", or worse. He was described as "Fritz the Ripper" with his "travelling circus" of "blasphemous tableaux", who was "trampling on the human rights of the dead". One commentator wrote: "Our internal geography is as remote to most of us as the High Andes. That is the way I would like to keep it."

Millions of others, who have queued all over the world to see his exhibitions, disagree. Von Hagens brought the world of the post-mortem out from behind closed doors. He has spawned 18 copycat shows that are now touring the world, drawing millions of visitors. The eagerness of the public to understand, appreciate or just gawp at the complexity of the human body has turned plastination into a global business.

The fedora is an important part of his identity. He started wearing it 20 years ago – to cover his bald pate – and is now never without it, even in bed. He quotes Salvador Dali on "never wanting to dress in an ordinary way".

His refusal to remove it during the public autopsy in London drew charges from a Daily Mail reporter that he was showing disrespect to the dead. He countered that it was standard garb for anatomists in the past, as portrayed in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of 1632.

"I believe in individualism. It is the biggest strength of democracy. An unusual exterior comes back to you from people. It gives you some stimulation to think in unorthodox ways. The hat reminds me every day I have to be an individual and follow my own thoughts."

The most serious charge against him, and the one that has proved most persistent, is that the bodies in his exhibitions were taken, not given. It has been alleged that his corpses include executed prisoners from China and inmates of psychiatric institutions in Kyrgyzstan obtained without their relatives' consent. He insists that all were given freely but the accusations keep recurring, notably in the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2004.

"I always had bodies that were donated – otherwise it would have been against my aim of democratising anatomy. But my reputation suffered. I had to go to court [when the allegations surfaced in Der Spiegel] and I won. I was fed up with being mixed up with the copycat exhibitors. You cannot know where a Chinese corpse comes from. There are no Chinese bodies in any of my exhibitions."

Six months ago, he stopped all plastination of human corpses in China – even though they were sourced in Germany, sent for dissection to China and then returned – in order to put an end to the allegations once and for all. For the future, his Chinese factory will concentrate on plastinating animals.

He chose China originally because, he says, the Chinese produced the most skilled dissectors, the University of Dalian granted him an honorary professorship and provided him with a building, and he enjoyed operating in a Communist country.

Today, he has a more immediate source of bodies – from among the visitors to his exhibitions. An astonishing number have expressed a wish to become body donors. Up to last June, 8,002 people from all over the world, including 103 from the UK, had entered their names on the body donor register for the Plastinarium in Guben and filled in the complex consent form. One, Robert Ashton, described in The Independent on Sunday what made him volunteer. "No rotting in the ground for me, or quick release as a puff of smoke from some crematorium chimney. I wanted to be here with the other exhibits – skinned, posed and proud," he wrote.

Of the 8,000 who signed up, 488 have so far died and many of their bodies, embalmed and preserved, have already been delivered and are awaiting plastination. The supply of corpses from donors is now more than enough to meet his needs and should, he hopes, put an end to the "body snatching" allegations.

Success has come to Von Hagens late, and not in the way he expected. Born in Poznan in 1945 in what was then East Germany but is now Poland, he was one of five children – his father was a supervisor in the coal industry – and he was a loner from the start. As a teenager, on Sunday evenings when the family gathered round the television, he would slip away to study his encyclopaedia.

He suffered from the bleeding disorder haemophilia. Though bright, he was regarded as a weakling by his classmates and became a scapegoat, which increased his introspectiveness and self-reliance. At the University of Heidelberg, he was regarded as an "endearing, extremely committed colleague" but also as a "pitiable screwball" – again according to his second wife, Angelina Whalley. Even today, she says, he takes little notice of criticism unless it is damaging his enterprises.



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He qualified as a doctor in 1975, aged 29, after spending two years in jail in the late 1960s when he was caught trying to escape to the West. A replica of his cell, with its bunk beds and grimy lavatory, can be seen in the Plastinarium, together with school reports and police and family photos. One wall is covered with hundreds of references in scientific literature to plastination, the method for preserving bodies that he invented and patented in 1977.

After qualifying, he realised that patients didn't interest him – but bodies did. He had a talent for dissection and for model-making. "I am extremely good in three dimensions. If you show me a rabbit and then take it away, I can make it in Plasticine." Today, he tests applicants to become plastinators by showing them a scapula (shoulder blade), hiding it and getting them to make it from memory. Few succeed.

He had no plans at the start to use plastination to display the human body in public. He thought it would be useful as a training tool, a way to preserve specimens to educate future anatomists. The first inkling of its broader potential came in 1989 when a small healthcare company in Heidelberg asked him for some specimens to mount an exhibition in a school. Without any publicity, the exhibition attracted queues of students by day, followed by their parents at night. In all, 15,000 people saw it in three weeks.

The success of that event prompted him to begin plastinating whole bodies. In 1995, the completed corpses had their first public outing in Tokyo at an exhibition to mark the centenary of the Japanese Anatomical Society. It was a sell-out – 550,000 people came.

There were almost no protests, but there was one criticism; many people found the corpses scary. The bodies were displayed staring straight ahead, arms by their sides – and they looked blind. The answer, Von Hagens realised, was to leave their eyebrows in place and give them surprised, amused or determined expressions. Eyebrows, it turns out, are the seat of the personality.

Two years later in Mannheim, for the first exhibition in Germany, he arranged the corpses in the now-familiar extravagant poses. People queued for up to eight hours, and 750,000 saw the exhibition. He had discovered a new way of displaying the anatomically dissected human body – and a new audience for it. "I took the fear out and put the humour in. There were no problems with the visitors. But suddenly, I had a new problem. I was accused of turning human bodies into art.

"I am a scientist with a sense of aesthetics. I bring anatomy to the people in an emotional way. I have to open their hearts – to create 'body pride'. When you go into conventional museums displaying skeletons and mummies, you get cruelty shock. I do the reverse – but to achieve it, I need this lifelike positioning. I don't dehumanise a specimen – I never change a leg into a golf club or a penis into a revolver. I don't do Damien Hirst. I am always about the anatomy. I am an anatomist, not an artist."

To the charge that he has trivialised human existence, displaying his corpses in Disneyfied poses – as heroic gymnasts or grinning pirates – he has a ready riposte: "Every good teacher is an entertainer." He describes the work of plastination as the "post-mortem beauty shop" where lumpy corpses of dough-like flesh are transformed into action heroes reaching for the stars.

He was attacked by the church for showing disrespect to the dead, and by colleagues who accused him of turning anatomy into a freak show. But, 10 years on from the Mannheim show, Gunther von Hagens is a household name. Oddly, it is not his own name but that of his first wife, Cornelia von Hagens, a gynaecologist he met in medical school and married in 1975, and the mother of his three children. His surname was Liebchen, which means "little darling", and after two years they were so tired of being teased about it that they resolved to change it. However, the cost of doing so was 3,000 marks, a fee he resented paying. To avoid it, and to thumb his nose at the authorities, he divorced Cornelia and remarried her, under her name.

Some suspect a darker motive for the name change. His father, Gerhard Liebchen, was a Nazi official who served in the German SS. Von Hagens is uncomfortable when I broach the subject. He is a loyal son, and he and his father are close. "He was 25 and he served as a cook," he says. "He was swept along by group pressure – at 25, you don't know what it means. I didn't know about it until three years ago, not because he kept it secret but because he lost a lot of friends in the war and found it difficult to talk about it."

His marriage to Cornelia failed because, he says now, she wanted to settle down and lead a conventional life. But he speaks warmly of her: "She is a wonderful mother. I see her regularly. We always spend Christmas together."

When he married his second wife, Angelina, a former student 20 years his junior, he was determined not to make the same mistake, warning her not to expect a conventional partnership. She has written of him affectionately as "not exactly a handsome man" but as a "colourful crazy bird" who was "bubbling over with charisma". She abandoned her plans to become a surgeon and took over the running of the business. Now she lives mainly in the US; they see each other four days a month.

"My strength is invention and anatomy, hers is money and negotiation. She manages the financial side. I told her when I married her there would be no holidays, always work, and craziness all over. When she starts to become unhappy I remind her of that."

His passion is reserved now for his projects and for anatomy. He counts himself lucky to have found a way of life that "combines work and hobby". What he seems to lack, however, is ordinary human contact. When I ask when he has time to see friends, he replies: "I don't have..." before correcting himself. "My workers are my friends," he says.

After three hours chatting in his office and over a dinner of steamed trout in his favourite – and cheap – Polish restaurant across the border, he is still so eager to continue our conversation that he accompanies me on the two-hour train ride back to Berlin.

As we part on the platform, two young men in hooded tops approach him for his autograph. He chats to them for several minutes before remembering he has a train to catch. My last view of the man who has given our bodies a kind of immortality is of a lonely, hatted figure, knapsack over one shoulder, hurrying down the platform steps back to his bleak apartment above the grinning corpses in the Plastinarium – with only his dreams for company.



The weekly three-part series Autopsy: Emergency Room starts on Channel 4 on 6 November (11pm). For information on the British Red Cross, see www.redcross.org.uk

Plastination: How it works

* It takes up to 1,500 hours to dissect and plastinate a body. Von Hagens spends at least 100 hours on each one himself – to ensure that the finished exhibit is a "masterpiece", he says. "You must work like a sculptor, with an idea of the completed body in your mind." In the past, he did most of the work himself. Now, he says, he has "very good dissectors" whom he trained and has worked with for many years.



* The process begins with embalming – the conventional technique of draining the blood and replacing it with formaldehyde to halt decomposition.



* The body is then carefully dissected to expose the areas that will be displayed or highlighted and placed in a warm acetone bath to remove the fat.



* It is then transferred to a vacuum chamber where the acetone is removed and replaced by silicone (plastic) under pressure. The vacuum forces the silicone deep into the body's tissues. Perfecting this part of the process, which he called plastination and patented in 1977, was the key to Von Hagens' success.



* In the last stage of the process, the body is positioned in the way in which it will be displayed, with strings, clips, needles and blocks of foam used to arrange the head, torso, muscles and exposed body parts. A tent is constructed around it, the temperature raised to 40C, and a gas curing agent is used to harden the silicone. Sometimes the muscles are coloured to improve definition. The body is then ready for display. The whole process takes a year and costs £20,000 to £30,000. About 100 bodies have so far been completed.

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