The health officials who have Gunther von Hagens in their sights over his plans to carry out a public autopsy in London this week should know that he is not easily intimidated. This is a man who, as a citizen of the old East Germany, spent nearly two years in prison for protesting at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
It was the late 1960s and Professor von Hagens was a 21-year-old medical student in the city of Jena. One way political prisoners could be released in those days was to be bought out by West Germany, which would hand over to the East as much as DM1m depending on whom they were getting. "I cost only DM43,000," says Prof von Hagens. "I was a good buy!"
Sporting his trademark black fedora, 47-year-old Prof von Hagens has weaved his way through the latest flock of visitors to his Body Worlds exhibition in London's Brick Lane and is now sitting in a darkened room. He is explaining why his autopsy – to be carried out next Wednesday on a 33-year-old German woman who died in June this year – is for the good of the British people.
Prof von Hagens says he speaks as the representative of the 600,000 people who have come to see his Body Worlds exhibition, the astonishingly successful display of anatomy that has pulled in so many visitors that it has just been extended for the second time. "I want to show that there are rules where there should be no rules, to make people aware that they are being patronised not to their own advantage. I think in Britain there is a tendency to accept what the Government has to say. In Germany, because of our unhappy experience in the Second World War, we are much more wary of our government."
Prof von Hagens is referring to Department of Health rules – currently under review – that could outlaw the autopsy, indeed could have made it impossible for him to mount Body Worlds. Using his "plastination" techniques to preserve what were once living bodies, Prof von Hagens has, as it were, struck a nerve.
"We live in a very body-minded age," he says. "We have the cult of body-piercing. More and more people go to body-building clubs. Among young people especially, the thinking is going from heaven to earth, soul to body. We don't fear punishment of the soul any more, yet religion remains very body-hostile. Anxiety before death used to be of the day of judgement, but when society is more secularised, and medical knowledge is growing, we understand more and more that we have to fear our body deaths. But there is still this great mystery about the body."
Prof von Hagens says his interest in the body dates back to when he was only six. A haemophiliac, he had cut his head and ended up spending six months in hospital. He saw his first autopsy when he was 17 and was absolutely fascinated. He went on to confirm his independent-mindedness by standing up to the totalitarian state, though it is clear that this was already in the genes.
"My father did many different things," he explains. "He was a banker, a miller, and finally a beekeeper – because beekeeping was the only profession which you could not collectivise. In other words, he could be an individual."
One thing Prof von Hagens has never claimed to be is an artist. Some might find his show distasteful or gruesome, but it is not to be confused with, for example, the cow's head in formaldehyde that helped to make Damien Hirst's name. Married with a son and two daughters, he comes across as a fundamentally serious person, committed to the principles of openness and knowledge for all. Asked how he would describe himself, he says "inventor". No doubt envy mingles with the disapproval he has faced, because the success of Body Worlds, not just in Britain but in half a dozen other countries, has made him a multi-millionaire. He has homes in London, Germany, Kyrgistan and China, where he has developed his plastination techniques.
As Prof von Hagens's reputation has spread, so more people have contacted him to say that they would like to offer their bodies to him after their deaths. The woman on whom Prof von Hagens plans to carry out the autopsy next week had contacted him a year before she died. She suffered from epilepsy, and the coroner decided that her death had not been unnatural. But her parents think she may have been pregnant. They also wonder about suicide. "I think they felt they did not really know the reason for her death," Prof von Hagens says. Those attending the autopsy will see "how intricate everything is, how closely it works together". If the authorities stand in his way, he thinks it will only harm their own standing. "It would not be in accordance with what people think and want, and in this way it would be undemocratic." And you can't deny that democracy – or lack of it – is something Prof von Hagens knows all about.
'Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies' is at the Atlantis Gallery, The Old Truman Brewery, 146 Brick Lane, London E1 (020 7053 0011) until 9 February 2003; tickets for Wednesday's autopsy have sold out
1945 Born Poznan, now part of Poland. Grew up near Leipzig, in the former East Germany.
1965 Medical student at the University of Jena.
1968 Jailed for protests over Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
1970 Freed, and moved to West Germany.
1973 Graduated in medicine from the University of Lübeck, near Hamburg, and began his career as a doctor.
1975 Married. Went on to have a son and two daughters.
1995 Invented plastination technique for preserving body parts.
2002 Brought Body Worlds exhibition to London.Reuse content