Gunther von Hagens

From Academic Kids

Gunther von Hagens (born January 10, 1945) is an anatomist who invented the plastination technique to conserve specimen and is heavily involved in its promotion. He developed the Body Worlds exhibition of human bodies and body parts.



He was born Gunther Liebchen in a Jewish family in Poznan, Poland. A haemophiliac, he grew up in East Germany and as a child spent six months in hospital after cutting himself. This stimulated an interest in medicine, and in 1965 he commenced studies in medicine at the University of Jena. He was arrested after political protests and an attempt to escape to West Germany. West Germany bought his freedom in 1970 and he continued his medical studies in Lübeck, and received a doctorate in 1975 from the University of Heidelberg. There he would work at the Institutes of Anatomy and Pathology as a lecturer for twenty years.

Dr von Hagens is best known for his plastination technique, which he invented in 1977 and patented in the following year. Subsequently, he developed the technique further, and founded the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg in 1993. He has been visiting professor in Dalian, China since 1996, where he runs a plastination center, and also directs a plastination center at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Von Hagens developed the Body Worlds exhibition, showing numerous cadavers plastinated in various poses and dissected to various degrees. The exhibition went on tour in 1995, and has met with public interest and controversy in numerous cities around the world since. Critics contend that the exhibition is sensationalist and that the artistic, lifelike poses into which the plastinated cadavers have been fixed is degrading and disrespectful. The show, and von Hagens' subsequent exhibition Body Worlds II, are nevertheless undoubtedly very popular; von Hagens says that they have received over 15 million visitors.

In 2002 von Hagens performed the first public autopsy performed in the UK for 170 years, to a sell-out audience of 500 people in a London theatre. Prior to performing the autopsy, von Hagens had received a letter from Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy, the British government official responsible for regulating the educational use of cadavers. The letter warned von Hagens that performing a public autopsy would be a criminal act under section 9 of the 1984 Anatomy Act. The show was attended by officers from the Metropolitan Police, but they did not intervene and the dissection was performed in full. A planned public dissection in Munich was cancelled.

In 2005 the UK's Channel 4 television screened three programs entitled Anatomy for Beginners, featuring von Hagens and pathology professor John Lee dissecting a number of cadavers and discussing the structure and function of many of the body's parts.

Von Hagens is married to Angelina Whalley; he has has three children from his first marriage and also retains the surname von Hagens which is that of his first wife. When appearing in public, even when performing anatomical dissections, von Hagens always wears his trademark widebrimmed black hat.

Von Hagens has said that his grand goal is the founding of a "Museum of Man" where exhibits of human anatomy can be permanently shown. He does not seem to be deterred by the controversies that have dogged his work, and has often made detailed public statements about his positions.

Legal accusations

Von Hagens has a guest professorship from Dalian Medical University and a honorary professorship from Bishkek State Medical Academy. In publications, he often uses the title "Professor". In 2003, the University of Heidelberg initated legal action against him, claiming that he had misrepresented himself as a professor from a German university in a Chinese document, and that he had failed to state the foreign origin of his title in Germany. Von Hagens disputed this. On April 25, 2005, a Heidelberg court sentenced him to a fine of 108,000 euros (equivalent to a prison term of 90 days at the daily income assessed by the court) for one count of using an academic title that he was not entitled to, but acquitted him on four other counts.

Also in 2003, an animal rights organization filed a complaint alleging that von Hagens did not have proper papers about a gorilla he had plastinated. The Hanover zoo, where the animal had died, gave the cadaver to him. Von Hagens stated that he has all required paperwork.

Hamburg prosecutors investigated charges of disturbing the dead, based on his photographing plastinated corpses late at night all over Hamburg.

There are legal proceedings against von Hagens in Siberia regarding a shipment of 56 corpses to Heidelberg.

In October 2003, a parliamentary committee in Kyrgyzstan investigated accusations that von Hagens had illegally received and plastinated several hundred corpses from prisons, psychiatric institutions and hospitals in Kyrgyzstan, some without prior notification of the families. Von Hagens himself testified at the meeting; he said he had received nine corpses from Kyrgyzstan hospitals, none had been used for the Body Worlds exhibition, and that he was not involved with nor responsible for the notification of families.

In February 2004, the German Süddeutsche Zeitung confirmed earlier reports by the German TV station ARD that von Hagens had offered a one-time payment and a life-long pension to Alexander Sizonenko if he would agree to have his body transferred to the Institute of Plastination after his death. Sizonenko, the tallest man on Earth at 2.48 m, formerly played basketball for the Soviet Union and is now plagued by numerous health problems. He declined the offer.

External Links

Further Reading

  • Nina Kleinschmidt and Henri Wagner: Endlich unsterblich? Gunther von Hagens - Schöpfer der Körperwelten. Bastei Lübbe, 2000. A very sympathetic biography of Gunther von Hagens, in German.
  • Tomas Avenarious: Mephisto und der Riese von St. Petersburg, Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 2, 2004. Report about the contacts with



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