An empty shell

Today’s doctors study anatomy in great detail, aided by constant improvements in microscope technology, electronic scanning and, in recent decades, computers. But what exactly are they studying?

If you want to see what a human body looks like with its mental and emotional energies taken away, look out for Professor Gunther von Hagens’ travelling Bodyworlds Exhibition. Here you will find real human bodies displayed in all their glory (or stripped of their dignity, depending on your point of view).

The Professor is a controversial figure. In the 1970s he developed a technique called ‘plastination’, which removes the moisture from human and animal bodies and enables him to preserve them more or less indefinitely.

I found the Bodyworlds Exhibition a powerful educational experience. Waiting to greet me were over two hundred exhibits. Some were simply displays of body parts, including both male and female brains sliced like ham, a smoker’s black lungs opened up and compared with a non-smoker’s, and the tubes inside a scrotum drawn out to their full length, about a metre or so.

Others displayed complete cadavers with their skin removed, their bones, muscles and internal organs arranged in a variety of poses, each designed to demonstrate different anatomical features. A variety of athletic poses illustrated the use of muscle systems; there were plastinates riding a plastinated horse, playing basketball, kneeling before a cross and so on.

Juan Valverde

One stood proud, holding his skin in one hand like a blanket and unashamedly revealing his internal organs, mimicking a similar pose on an anatomical plate dated 1559 by Juan Valverde de Amusco in which a man holds a knife in one hand and his own skin in the other.

Another opened his arms like a pope to reveal all the organs of his stomach and chest cavity and another the torso of a pregnant woman sliced vertically in half to show the womb and foetus in situ.

It is easy to see why von Hagens is accused of publicity seeking. Indeed, press reports in 2009 that he was planning a sex show featuring plastinates attracted hundreds of complaints. Politicians and churchmen lined up to label it revolting and unacceptable, and a short video about the exhibit was banned in several countries.

But despite the protests, the Professor insists that his work is educational. Visitors see the structure and inner workings of the human body and the long-term impact of diseases and are brought face to face with the effects of poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, drugs and excessive alcohol consumption.

I certainly learned a lot, and my occasional discomfort never turned into offence. But as I left the exhibition, one thought kept recurring. I had not been looking at whole human beings at all: whatever had kept them alive and made them human – their very humanness – was no longer there. 

Without our non-physical attributes – what some philosophers call the ghost in the maching – we are nothing but an empty shell.

©David Lawrence Preston, 28.7.2018

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