Q&A: "Dr. Death" Gunther von Hagens

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Theo Heimann / AFP / Getty Images

German so-called plastinator Gunther von Hagens poses with a preparated human arm at his "Plastinarium" workplace in Guben, eastern Germany.

On June 4, Leipzig in Germany sees the opening of a new exhibition by the German anatomist known as "Dr. Death." Why "Dr. Death?" Because Dr. Gunther von Hagens, 65, is the inventor of a procedure known as plastination, a technique used in anatomy to preserve body-parts or bodies — where water and fat are withdrawn from the cells and replaced with a synthetic resin. Von Hagens is behind "Body Worlds — The Story of the Heart," which runs until September 12. The exhibit, as the name suggests, has various hearts on display and the doctor's new venture is likely to pull in the crowds — just like his "Body Worlds" show, which has been wowing the world since 1995, attracting millions of visitors.

How did you come up with the idea for this new exhibition?
I'm always having new ideas and this time, I decided to focus on the heart. I wanted to examine cardiological systems and show people why the heart is such an important organ. We compare healthy and diseased hearts and there are video installations and posters. I'm a perfectionist and I worked hard to get this exhibition right. There's a clear message for the public — keep your heart healthy, do exercise and don't smoke or eat too much.

But for many people your exhibits are disgusting. You've also just opened a shop at your main site in Guben [a German town on the German/Polish border] where you're selling human body parts. Isn't that going a step too far?
We've turned our site at Guben into a research and teaching institution where people can learn about anatomy. We've re-designed the Plastinarium there and we now have a new, huge Anatomical Teaching Center and a store where we sell body parts. This is the first time in the world that parts of dead bodies are on sale in public — we're breaking a taboo here. Since we opened the shop on May 28, we've had hundreds of visitors. People have been so curious and they've traveled from far away to see our work. We run guided tours for members of the public, for school children and students who can see how the plastination process works and learn more about anatomy. There's a huge black market in body parts operating — for years you've been able to buy parts of dead bodies on the internet — and I wanted to stop that underground market and make it open and public.

What are you selling?
You can buy a smoker's lung, a skull, or even a whole dead body. We have a price list and of course the prices range according to what you're buying. There are strict controls and an ordinary member of the public can't just come and buy a body part. You have to be a special "qualified user," like for example, a doctor or professor, a research institute, hospital or museum, to be able to buy a human plastinate. The price ranges from around $100 to up to $100,000 — it depends on what you want. For example, a whole frontal [plastinated"] dead body slice costs over $13,400, or a human lower leg slice costs $100.

Your critics say it's a "supermarket of corpses" and you've faced a lot of opposition from local authorities and church groups.
That's nonsense, I just tell everyone, come and see it for yourself. This is like a jewelery shop. All the items — the body parts — which are on sale are beautiful and they are for eternity. It isn't disgusting. The human body is beautiful. I've spent years studying plastination and I am an aesthetically oriented man.

I've employed 220 people in Guben alone and we're expanding all the time. There are always going to be people who don't agree with my work. I often receive legal challenges from opponents and a few of my exhibitions have actually been stopped in some areas of Germany. But when you look at how many people have flocked to see my Body Worlds exhibitions in other countries, you see how curious people are to find out more about anatomy. I hope that one day even Pope Benedict XVI may come over and take a look for himself.

What plans do you have for the future?
I've got 670 dead bodies and I've got a lot of ideas. I'm planning to expand the body-parts store and I want to set up a mail-order business, so people from all over the world who are interested can buy parts of the body with one click of the button. Whether it's a man in India or a woman in Brazil, I want to make it easy for everyone to get access to the human body.