Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Jeremy Laurance meets the controversial champion of human plastination and dissection

Jeremy Laurance
Thursday 02 July 2015 00:25 BST
Odd couple: Gunther von Hagens and his wife, Angelina Whalley, in Berlin this year at the opening of the first Bodyworlds museum
Odd couple: Gunther von Hagens and his wife, Angelina Whalley, in Berlin this year at the opening of the first Bodyworlds museum (Getty Images)

The multimillionaire inventor was smiling as the car in which he was travelling drew up. The trademark black Fedora was still firmly in place on his head and as he got out I advanced to shake his hand.

But something was wrong. He was unsteady on his feet and his mouth hung open. His eyes were wide with surprise – appropriate, perhaps, for an inventor – but his face was mask-like. As we greeted each other he mumbled something I could not catch.

This was Gunther von Hagens, known throughout the world for his famous – some would say infamous – Bodyworlds exhibition, the display of plastinated corpses arranged in "heroic" poses that caused a sensation when it opened in London more than a decade ago.

The technique of plastination that he invented – a method of impregnating bodies with plastic that allowed them to be dissected and disassembled so that all their working parts could be put on show – introduced anatomy to the layman.

What had previously been the preserve of pathologists and policemen – the mortuary is still the only no-go area in hospitals – was suddenly opened to public view. And in place of shrivelled grey organs in jars of formalin as seen in medical museums, plastination allowed whole corpses to be presented, available for minute inspection by anyone who cared to have a look.

Plenty did. Despite his critics who labelled him "Dr Death" and accused him of a ghoulish obsession akin to necrophilia, millions flocked to see what he had created. Today he has nine exhibitions touring the world, two of which show plastinated animals – including a giraffe and, the biggest draw, an elephant. (One can currently be seen in Dublin.) In all, 40 million people have stood in front of his exhibits. He has changed the way we see the dead.

His success made him a wealthy man. But what fascinated me over the years, almost more than his plastinated corpses, was how he has responded to his success. Despite his wealth, he had no interest in material things – he did not own a car, wore cheap clothes, regarded food as fuel and always flew economy – but he did have one overriding ambition. He had set out to create the world's largest institute of anatomy on the site of a huge, derelict factory in Guben, a small town two hours south of Berlin on the Polish border. Eight years ago, when I first visited, he had already spent millions. This year, he opened a smaller establishment in Berlin, and I took the opportunity to visit him in Guben. I wanted to see what had become of it – and him.

Gunther (the name by which everyone, including his staff, addresses him), his second wife, Angelina Whalley, and his son, Rurik, came to collect me from the airport. As I squeezed onto the backseat of the taxi – no limo for Gunther – his dog Bella, a Prague ratter (the smallest breed in the world), barked noisily from his lap.

Gunther von Hagen with a plastinated duck at his workshop in the German town of Guben in 2006 (Getty)
Gunther von Hagen with a plastinated duck at his workshop in the German town of Guben in 2006 (Getty) (Getty Images)

We set off and I tried to get the conversation going. Despite the family's perfect English, it was not easy. I sensed some wariness – each time Rurik spoke he glanced at Angelina for approval – but this was not surprising. Everything Gunther has done has courted controversy and the media have frequently fanned the flames. When Angelina, who manages the exhibitions, opened the first permanent Bodyworlds museum in the centre of Berlin, she had to fight off legal threats to prevent it. But the local district mayor has still appealed to a higher court, arguing that the public display of bodies contravenes German funerary legislation.

The press agency AFP headlined its story "Dr Death opens corpse museum", suggesting a macabre display of human remains. In fact, the exhibition shows immaculately preserved, cosmetically perfect bodies performing stunts on skateboards and saving goals. It would not alarm a 10-year-old. "You must face big legal bills," I said. "Yes, we do," replied Angelina.

There was a second, sadder reason that made it difficult to communicate. A year after I last saw him, Gunther, now 70, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. It progressed fast and affected his speech as well as his movements. He has had a brain implant – he lifted his hat to show me the lumps on his scalp where the electrodes run – which has improved things. Today was a good day, but it was still difficult to make him out. He spoke softly, with a rapid-fire stutter, as if there was a butterfly in his mouth.

In time, his illness made it impossible for him to continue to run the project in Guben. But it was also facing another difficulty: it was haemorrhaging money. When I visited in 2007 and surveyed the vast two-acre site of roofless and windowless buildings littered with debris, I wrote that it looked like a money pit. So it proved. By 2010, having spent a reported £30m, Gunther was facing bankruptcy.

Dr Gunther von Hagens appears on Channel 4's 'Autopsy: Life And Death' in 2006
Dr Gunther von Hagens appears on Channel 4's 'Autopsy: Life And Death' in 2006 (Channel 4)

It was time for Rurik, his 34-year-old son, to step in. In December of that year, Gunther stood in front of his staff in tears as he explained how his dreams had crumbled. (Two-thirds of the 220 workers were laid off.) Then Rurik, who had studied business administration and worked in the commercial sector, set about putting the project on a firmer financial footing. The vast dissecting laboratories on the top floor of the factory, which Gunther had prepared for medical students from across the world, today still stand empty save for a few old posters from former exhibitions.

The touring exhibitions have a full complement of plastinated bodies – Gunther liked to boast that they would last for 1,000 years with occasional cleaning – so the business is now focused on supplying bodies for medical education. The current order book includes universities in Cyprus, Ghana and Iraq. To plastinate a complete body takes a year and costs €70,000 (£50,000), according to Rurik. A head costs €15,000 and an organ such as a heart or lung €2,000 to €3,000. For the last three years, the business has been self-supporting and is no longer subsidised by the exhibitions. "But only if you disregard any return on the millions invested," Rurik added.

These days, the dissectors work in public in the Plastinarium on the ground floor, the only part of the complex open to the public, where visitors can see how the exhibits are created. These are not, however, all white-coated medics wielding scalpels. They include grey-haired women bending over corpses and tweaking nerve fibres as if working on embroidery. To see them peering into body cavities and poking their needles is at least as disorientating as anything on show.

As we passed through, staff came up to greet Angelina and shake Gunther's hand. This is still a family enterprise. But something was missing. It was Gunther's raging, maniacal vision. What began as a dream has become a business. But you get a sense of the original idea from other parts of the vast complex of buildings, linked by long, dimly lit corridors or separated by cobbled courtyards, across the two-acre site. For example, the two-storey-high Body Church, where a crimson figure – all its fat, muscle, bone and connective tissue dissolved away to leave only the blood vessels – is displayed on a crucifix.

This is where meetings of body donors have been held. And from among the 15,000 (including 167 from the UK) who have signed up to donate their mortal remains for plastination – Gunther, Angelina and Rurik, among them – just over 1,500 have so far died.

Organisers say more than 15,000 people, predominently from von Hagens' own country of Germany, have agreed to donate their own bodies to his exhibitions (Getty)
Organisers say more than 15,000 people, predominently from von Hagens' own country of Germany, have agreed to donate their own bodies to his exhibitions (Getty) (Getty Images)

When he had "body factories" in China and Kyrgyzstan producing new exhibits – having been driven out of Germany by the controversy in the West – Gunther faced allegations, always denied, about the provenance of the bodies. Those factories are now shut, all bodies used are donated and their sources meticulously authenticated, which has silenced the critics.

A neighbouring hall houses a gigantic band saw, with crane and elaborate cooling system, big enough to slice an elephant or a giraffe in half. It was always his crazy ambition – to plastinate an elephant! – that made him so charismatic. "Gunther is still dreaming of doing a blue whale," Rurik said. "Hopefully that will never come true."

It was raining and the three of us sprinted from hall to hall, trying to avoid a soaking, with Gunther shuffling behind, his lapdog Bella straining at the leash. In another room, a car that had been involved in a serious accident, its front end smashed, has been neatly sliced in two. The owner committed suicide by driving into a tree in the same spot where his wife had previously died. Both had donated their bodies for plastination and Gunther intends to pose them beside the instrument of their deaths. Did he worry about how the pubic might react to such a display? "No," he said. "We are all in constant danger. I was very sure I would have a long life. Then – this." He shrugged.

Next door is an even stranger exhibit – a full-size military tank, also sliced in two. "That took three weeks," said Gunther, grinning.

Why did he do it? He replied with a long mumbled explanation that I could not catch. He seemed to say it was about "exposing the inner workings". I wondered if he had done it just for the challenge.

A plastinated corpse on display in Berlin (Getty)
A plastinated corpse on display in Berlin (Getty) (Getty Images)

On my previous visit, when I asked whether he planned to leave anything to his three children, he replied memorably: "A euro not spent in your lifetime is a stinking fish." He saw his responsibility as a father to be providing them with a good education, as his parents had done for him (his father is still alive, aged 99). Now he repeats the phrase with relish.

Left to his own devices, there is little doubt that he would have poured every last euro into this extraordinary project. But his illness and financial reality have conspired to clip his wings. He and Angelina, 15 years his junior, have lived separately for years; and nowadays he divides his time between Berlin, where he has an apartment filled with books, and someone to cook and clean – and Guben, where he occupies a spartan apartment above the Plastinarium itself and, importantly, has access to a workshop, a network of eight linked rooms with tanks and tubs, ovens and freezers, where bright pink plastinated pig's kidneys hang in a row. This chaotic space is now his true domain, where he can experiment at will and pursue the research that is his passion, but without imperilling the larger enterprise.

We climbed at last to the viewpoint, through a motorised trap door in the roof, from which it was possible to see the whole site. Rurik pointed out the two huge pillared halls containing the freezers where bodies are immersed in acetone in the defatting process and another, equally vast, containing broken freezers awaiting repair. There was the laboratory where work is under way to develop new polymers, there was the TV studio, where Channel 4 made a series of programmes about his work, and there was the Plastinarium which, in addition to welcoming visitors, now supplies plastinated bodies to educational institutions around the world.

Angelina said: "Gunther wanted to do it here. He felt at home [he was born across the border in what is now Poland]. It was a challenge and he always wanted to do what other people felt was impossible. But if we were starting again, we would not start from here."

Gunther was standing, mouth open, gazing around him in the rain. Then he turned to me, and with a broad smile said: "This is the largest anatomical institute in the world!"

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