On December 22 I took two of my grandsons to a local 'Bodies Revealed' exhibit. It was nicely and tastefully housed, featuring a series of spacious rooms, each dedicated to an aspect of the body: skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory, etc. The presentation was restrained, and museum like, yet the displays could be easily and closely inspected rather than cordoned off and set back from the viewing public. The bodies ‘allegedly’ as the popular cant goes, are people. But they don't shock, perhaps because they have no skin, no smell of flesh or death or formalin. They are plastic castings shaped on a human body.
The exhibition included 10 whole bodies, many in athletic poses such as running or playing volleyball, and more than 200 partial body and organ specimens, including a healthy lung and a lung diseased by years of smoking. Visitors can see the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory and respiratory systems of the body in nine galleries. According to informational material provided, a German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, created what are thought to be the first commercial exhibitions of polymer-preserved corpses and organs, "Body Worlds,"opened in Tokyo in 1995 and came to Los Angeles in 2004.
Though the displays were the result of remarkable and meticulous dissection, the silicone plasticizing process robbed them of sharpness and detail that is found in live surgical or post mortem tissues. I recalled the late '50's in Woodland where I sometimes assisted my senior partner with coroner autopsies or attended autopsies in order to better understand a patient's demise. And I felt the exhibit was disappointing and an opportunistic imitation of the real thing that failed. So my first reaction to this exhibit was that the tissues, bodies and organs displayed were very poor by comparison to the human remains they once were. Near the exhibit exit were some non technical reference books, including Netter's Atlas of the Human Body. By comparison the Netter work seemed far more detailed and accurate than the exhibit. The exhibited bodies were not informative compared to the beautiful Netters volumes I keep in near my desk.
Despite my own reactions, however, my grandsons simply were enthralled. They are rather wise and knowing children in some ways. One is 16, a vegan, pacifist, an iconoclast who finds school to be of little true value. He tolerates it reluctantly. The younger is a very bright 12 year old who performs exceptionally well in science and math as in everything else including music; an over achiever who thrives on excellence. To my surprise I found myself at the exhibition, explaining anatomic details and relating them to health and disease. Neither of these youngsters missed a word for nearly 3 hours, retaining animated interest while I began to look anxiously at the clock. Moreover, many people of all ages found the figures, the organs, the systems, and the cryptic explanations fascinating.
Near the end of the exhibit were loose leaf binders where one might make a comment. While my grandsons wrote, I read. Most entries were from young people. Among the more interesting were those written by youngsters who could barely write a correct or legible sentence, but expressed open astonishment, and excitement, stating they learned more about the body, disease, and the physical effect of smoking there than during all their years at school. Maybe young eyes and minds innocent of stale experience with bodies captured what I did not.
Some have objected to the fact that these plastic models had once been living people. Others that most specimens were male, or that a
fetus and babies were modeled. According to the information provided at the exhibit the bodies came from people in China who had agreed to donate their bodies to a medical school before dying of natural causes. Yet I remained unconvinced of that detail. Very few bodies showed evidence of disease or injury, and prisoners would make ideal donors. On the other hand, I have no objection to verifiable voluntary donation of bodies for exhibition. No one would be able to recognize a relative or friend in the exhibits offered. It is reasonable, I believe, to offer our bodies for use in transplants, or for any purpose not dangerous to society, including dissection by medical students, and dissection for practice by surgeons. We all use up and destroy our bodies over time one way or another, so to offer one’s own body for an exhibit such as this seems a perfectly rational option. Maybe plasticized bodies in every high school would serve to interest high students in medicine or science more effectively than another great TV program.