Peter the Great wasn't just the ruler that turned Russia into a significant world power, he was also the possessor of an exceptionally curious mind. One of the world's great museums, St. Petersburg's Kunstkamera, is an outgrowth of the czar's enviable cabinet of curiosities. One of Peter's favorite luminaries was Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), whose specimens wove together the realms of art and science. One of his most significant innovations was perfecting a technique of injecting human tissues with wax in order to preserve blood vessels and organs for the use of medical students—or an autocrat hungry for knowledge.
Fast forward nearly 300 years to 1977 when a young German anatomist by the name of Gunther von Hagens created a similar method of preservation with a very different technique: By replacing liquids and fats with polymers, he was able to essentially turn organic tissue into plastic, hence the discipline's name, plastination. Hagens' technique is obviously a boon to teachers and students of medicine, far more convenient than dissection when it comes studying organs and especially entire systems. But like Ruysch, Hagens' work is as much art as it is science.
He debuted Body Worlds, his traveling show of plastinated human remains, in 1995. With the help of his wife and curator Angelina Whalley, Body Worlds (or Koerperwelten, as it's known in its native Germany) has grown to include seven different themed displays. They range from "Animals Inside Out," which includes anatomical specimens of a giraffe and large bull, to "Body Worlds & The Cycle of Life," devoted to tracking a human life from birth to aging and death.
From Saturday, January 14 to April 23, Houston's Health Museum will be lucky enough to play host to "Body Worlds RX," which focuses on the most common maladies affecting people today. According to Dr. Whalley, Houston is the third stop for the year-old show, following engagements in Birmingham, Ala. and Jacksonville, Fla.
"As a physician, of course my goal is to allow laypeople to get an inner glimpse. You never get a glimpse of what's in you and how intricate, how fragile it is," says Whalley. And in fact, a survey of past visitors six months after seeing the show has revealed lifestyle changes, including a reported 25 percent who reporting quitting smoking after seeing in living color what the practice does to human lungs.
In the exhibit, along with a side-by-side display of healthy and tar-blackened lungs, a 7-ounce cup filled with ashes reminds viewers that a 20-cigarette-a-day smoker inhales that much toxic black tar each year. A computer a few feet away allows visitors to compare the health of both men and women who do and don't smoke, mentioning every aspect from hairier arms on female smokers to weakened blood flow to the penis resulting in erectile disfunction in male smokers.
In a state in which the most recent reported obesity rate was 32.4 percent, displays devoted to diet may strike an especially resonant chord. The second room of the exhibit begins with large photos of families from around the world posed with their average weekly grocery purchases. Guess which country is represented by multiple pizzas, Texas toast, brown-sugar-coated bacon and countless bottles of soda for a family of four?
To that end, a plastinated fatty liver (yep, the human equivalent of foie gras) may give some viewers pause. And drinkers? Have a look at the shrunken cirrhotic liver with the tag "Not a knight in shining armor," describing how the liver's functions become impaired by the scars and nodules created by the disease.
But as useful as it is to see the effects of melanoma before thinking about hitting that tanning bed, Hagens' true genius is in his full-body displays. For example, the "X-Lady" above is displayed between areas devoted to Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. The split reveals not only the brain, but also the ball-and-socket hip joints and facial musculature to remind us how complex the work our brain does to coordinate our conscious movements is. An explanation below reminds us that we have more than 600 muscles, 200 bones and 100 joints to control without ever giving it conscious thought.
Amazing as that is, the show ends on a heartbreaking note. Hagens was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2010. Beside a plastinated brain slice affected by the disease, a poster notes that the doctor elected to have a pair of deep brain stimulation electrodes implanted in hopes of decreasing his movement disorder.
According to Whalley, it is now a struggle for him to travel, though he remains hard at work on a project to make plastinates without acetone—a highly flammable chemical that makes the process unnecessarily dangerous. In 2011, Hagens announced that he will be plastinated when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil, which is unlikely to be too soon.
Whalley says she, too, is a donor (one of almost 16,000 people who have signed up). As a group of school children touch hearts and kidneys reserved just for the purpose, she gestures to the kids. "I think this way it continues to let me to do what I'm doing throughout my life," she says. For the world's premiere anatomical couple, educating the masses won't end even after death.