I am at the cutting edge of democracy, proclaims professor as he defies police over public autopsy

Steve Connor
Thursday 21 November 2002 01:00

A stone's throw from the haunts of Jack the Ripper, Professor Gunther von Hagens did the first public autopsy in Britain for 170 years last night in a Victorian boilerhouse in the East End of London.

Wearing overalls and a fedora hat, the German doctor dissected the body of a 72-year-old man in front of television cameras and 500 people who had each paid £12 to watch the spectacle.

Assisted by two pathologists, one German and one British, he began by making a "Y" incision in the body. "I cut down through the thoracic cage, through the skin," he said. "What you see now is the yellow subcutaneous tissue ... you see, the body is really made up of shells."

Professor von Hagens took about an hour to complete the first stage of the procedure, which involved removing vital organs including the brain. As he started to cut through the skull with a hacksaw, several people in the audience left.

"The bone is, of course, quite strong, and it takes some time to get through the skull. I listen by the tone so I know where I am. I try not to damage the brain," he added, concentrating intently on the sound of his saw. The brain was removed and weighed. The largest mass of organs from the abdomen, including kidneys, liver, spleen and large intestine, was placed on a large steel tray.

"The body is now empty of all organs and there is now a large space inside," Professor von Hagens said, before announcing a half-hour break.

Chaos preceded the autopsy as police tried to control the crowds trying to get into the venue, which also stages Professor von Hagens' controversial Body Worlds exhibition of preserved human corpses.

Demand had been so great that an extra 150 people were told outside whether they had been given a seat under a public ballot system for the 2,000 who failed to get tickets.

Anatomy professors had been asked by Scotland Yard to attend after the Government's inspector of anatomy, Dr Jeremy Metters, said it would be "a criminal offence under the Anatomy Act" because neither Professor von Hagens nor the venue had dissection licences.

In a passionate address before the autopsy, the professor said: "I stand here for democracy ... the time is over when medical knowledge could be confined to an elite."

The corpse was that of a businessman who lost his job at 50 and started drinking up to two bottles of whisky a day. He was also a heavy smoker. Astatement from himsaid: "I entrust [Von Hagens] with my body for any public enlightenment."

Asked why he did not remove his hat as a sign of respect, the professor pointed to a portrait of a Renaissance surgeon performing a similar procedure – he also wore a hat.

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