Plastination is a process used to preserve bodies or body parts by replacing all the water and fat tissue with curable polymers. The technique was first developed in 1977 by Gunther von Hagens. Hagens went on to create Body Worlds, the original exhibit of plastinated, cross-sectioned human bodies, with the goal of educating the public about the human body and its functions. A steady hand and patience, along with meticulous attention to detail, are at the foundation of how Body Worlds exhibits are made.
On display in a Body Worlds exhibit are full-sized plastinated bodies, various organs, and various cross-sections of human bodies. Many of the bodies are skinned, though the skinning happens after the individual has perished. As creepy and morbid as they appear, there is no denying the positive impact these bodies - in all their plastinated glory - have had on the medical field.
The plastination inventor and the mastermind behind the Body Worlds exhibits, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, has assured the public that every human body on display has been sent to them by fully informed donors. In the past, von Hagens took cadavers from the former Soviet Union, but after an authorized body transportation scandal erupted, he broke off those ties.
However, although he can produce the proper paperwork and forms for all of his bodies, none of those forms can be attached to specific bodies in the exhibits because they are made anonymous to protect their privacy.
The same can't be said about his competitor, BODIES... The Exhibition. Dr. Roy Glover, a spokesman for BODIES... The Exhibition, openly admitted to NPR that the rival exhibition acquires its bodies from China. They are all unclaimed and include executed political prisoners. "We don't hide from it, we address it right up front," Glover said.
Plastination is currently being used at medical and dental schools all over the world. It gives students hands-on experience without having to harm animals or expose themselves to harsh chemicals like formalin. Exhibits like Body Worlds have also changed health education for the public.
Plastination allows the comparison of healthy organs to diseased ones, and it demystifies the functions of the human body in general. At a Body Worlds exhibit, for example, a visitor can expect to see cross sections of healthy and unhealthy organs paired against one another as well as undelivered fetuses and their mothers who might've perished in childbirth.
The first step in plastination is fixation. It involves careful dissection and embalming of the body, using a formaldehyde-based solution to halt decomposition. The process of preparing a body for a particular exhibit can be extremely time consuming, so it's important to stop the body from decomposing as quickly as possible.
It's during this step that the desired anatomical elements are prepared for display, and the body can be shaped during this step if needed. For example, if an exhibit is going to be focusing on the body's ability to jump, one leg might be bent at the knee while the other is outstretched with its toe pointed in order to illustrate this function. More complex positionings (assembling the body into its final display position) happen later in the process.
Long gone are the days of needing to let a body sit in the heat stuffed full of linen and herbs to dry out. In the second step, an acetone bath can speed the dehydration process in a step known as "forced impregnation." When under freezing conditions, the acetone works to pull out all the water in the body cavity and replaces it.
At the end of this process, acetone has taken the place of water in the body's cells.