An Exhibition of ‘Real’ Human Bodies

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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.

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