Professor Body and the curious case of Siberia's lost corpses

The German avant-garde scientist Gunther von Hagens, whose shocking public autopsies and dead-body sculptures caused uproar in the UK last year, received Russian corpses without the knowledge of the deceased's relatives, a Siberian court will be told this week.

Professor von Hagens (pictured right), the multimillionaire creator of the Body Worlds exhibition, will be named in the trial of Novosibirsk Forensic Medical Examination Bureau chief Vladimir Novosylov as the recipient of bodies sent to Germany from the Novosibirsk medical school in southern Siberia between 1999 and 2001. Prosecutors say relatives of some of the dead later attempted to claim the bodies - unaware they had already been collected and shipped out of the country.

Mr Novosylov faces charges of shipping 50 bodies in the trial which is due to start in the Siberian capital tomorrow. Many relatives of the bodies that vanished are distraught over never having had the chance to bury their dead. According to some reports, they were told their loved one had been cremated and were given urns supposedly containing the ashes.

But Professor von Hagens, whose Body Worlds exhibition of corpses and body parts in varying phases of dissection has been dubbed a "shameless Victorian freak show" by critics, denies he has profited from what the Russian media has called "scandalous body trafficking" or that he has any contact with Mr Novosylov. Speaking from Hamburg's Museum of Erotic Art, where the Body Worlds exhibition opened last Saturday, he told The Independent on Sunday: "I know nothing about a trial" - though he does know about the bodies. He referred back to a statement issued last year in which he said: "I cannot judge whether irregularities occurred in procuring anatomical specimens by employees of the University of Novosibirsk ... I relied on the assurances of the vice-chancellor and of the director of the Anatomical Institute as well as the declaration of the local customs authorities that shipment of the specimens was arranged in compliance with the laws of that country."

Professor von Hagens says that the bodies came to him as part of a "scientific exchange" programme between his Heidelberg-based Plastination institute and Novosibirsk medical school, designed to improve anatomical teaching at the university hospital. Plastination, which he invented in 1977, replaces body fluids with synthetic resins and enables corpses to be preserved in any position.

Under an agreement with the vice-chancellor, Anatoly Yefremov, specimens were to be sent to the institute to be "Plastinated" after which they would be returned to the university. Professor Yefremov also had charges filed against him; however these were dropped last year due to lack of evidence.

Under Russian law, the director of a hospital has the right to hand over unclaimed corpses to medical schools and institutions where no provision has been made in the event of death and where there are no traceable relatives. When the case came to light in 2001, the Russian news channel NTV quoted Mr Novosyolow as saying the bodies sent to Germany were of former prisoners, the homeless and abandoned old men, but that all had been accounted for.

Professor von Hagens has since suspended the exchange programme. He says all the corpses in his Body Worlds exhibition were donated by the person while they were still alive - and none on show are from Novosibirsk. "This is all just sensationalism on the part of the Russian media," he said. "But I am quite relaxed about it." He is not set to face any charges in the trial and the court has said it will not call him as a witness.

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