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The Plastination Process

Even though a major German encyclopedia (the 19th edition of the Brockhaus Encyclopedia, 1992) indicates that the word “Plastination” is derived from the Greek (from plassein, meaning to shape, to form), the term is, in fact, a creation of Dr. Gunther von Hagens. He coined the term because “plastification” already had a fixed meaning in the field of polymer chemistry, and the expression used in the original patents of 1977/78 (“Polymer Impregnation of Perishable, Biological Specimens”) was not terribly catchy and was utterly inadequate for popularizing the new technology, particularly abroad.

In July 1977, while working as a scientist and research assistant at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Pathology and Anatomy, Dr. Gunther von Hagens had an outrageous notion. “I was looking at a collection of specimens embedded in plastic. It was the most advanced preservation technique then, where the specimens rested deep inside a transparent plastic block. I wondered why the plastic was poured and then cured around the specimens, rather than pushed into the cells, which would stabilize the specimens from within and literally allow you to grasp it.” The notion, an epiphany for von Hagens, was the genesis of his invention of Plastination. During this groundbreaking process, all bodily fluids and soluble fat from anatomical specimens are extracted to stop decomposition and replaced through vacuum-forced impregnation with reactive resins and elastomers—such as silicon rubber and epoxy—that harden with gas, light, or heat curing. When the process is complete, specimens have rigidity and permanence. The Plastination process

Weeks later, while preparing serial slices of human kidneys for a research project, another thought occurred to him as he embedded the kidney slices in liquid Plexiglas, and watched the air bubbles that resulted from stirring the hardener that had to be extracted under vacuum. “It crossed my mind that it would be possible to impregnate an acetone-soaked renal piece with plastic under vacuum conditions simply by extracting the acetone in the form of bubbles, just as is done in degassing.” Though many acetone bubbles were extracted from the specimen, it shriveled into a black mass within the hour.

But von Hagens was undeterred by the result of his maiden voyage into the world of Plastination. His basic knowledge of physics and chemistry enabled him to conclude that the black coloration stemmed from the refractive qualities of the Plexiglas, and that the shrinkage was due to the accelerated speed of the impregnation process. This realization prompted him to repeat the experiment a week later using liquid silicone rubber that had more favorable light refractive properties. He administered the impregnation slowly, pouring fresh silicon in three separate baths to avoid premature hardening of the silicon and specimen from exposure to air. After curing the specimen in the open air, von Hagens held in his hands the world’s first plastinate.

In March of 1978, von Hagens filed a patent for his invention with the German Patent Office. However, he had only scratched the surface of Plastination. The refinement of his invention and the creation of the first whole-body plastinate would take 13 more years, though he declares even now that his methods are not yet perfect.

Like all pioneering scientific discoveries, Plastination had its fair share of spectacular failures before yielding success. Klaus Tiedemann, then a professor at the Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Heidelberg, and a colleague of von Hagens, bore witness to some of them. He remembers a day in the lab, when von Hagens tried to operate a vacuum chamber made from stainless steel plates welded together. “A safety glass about an inch thick served as its cover. When the vacuum had reached about one tenth of normal atmospheric pressure, the plate glass, which had bent considerably by then, burst with the sound of a hand grenade and covered us with glass crumbs,” he writes.

Despite many setbacks, von Hagens persevered with what had become his professional and personal obsession. In 1981, he filed his patent for “Animal and Vegetal Tissues Permanently Preserved by Synthetic Resin Impregnation,” with the U.S. Patent Office. In quick succession, von Hagens published several academic papers about his invention, and established BIODUR, a business to market the essential ingredients and formulas for Plastination to 400 medical schools and universities worldwide. He also founded the Institute for Plastination, and eventually created the BODY WORLDS anatomical exhibitions.

With Plastination, von Hagens has irrevocably changed the traditional field of anatomy and its audience. “The purpose of Plastination from its very inception was a scientific one, to educate medical students. But the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired me to think of public exhibitions, which was followed by the realization that I had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination,” says von Hagens. Since 1996, more than 26 million people around the world have viewed the BODY WORLDS exhibitions.

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