`Bodies' exhibit gets under your skin

Use of real dissected cadavers sparks curiosity, controversy

April 13, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

Ever wonder what your lungs look like? Or your liver?

An exhibit opening this weekend in Arlington, Va., uses real cadavers to satisfy that curiosity with a fascinating and controversial tour of the human body's internal workings.

Using a process called polymer preservation, scientists in China have taken the remains of unclaimed corpses, drained their fluids and injected them with plastic to display reconstructed bodies and body parts in full color and stark detail.

Bodies ... The Exhibition allows visitors to touch plasticized muscle and organs and get an internal view of the body's complex network of nerves and tissues and the circulatory system. The show opens tomorrow at the site of the former Newseum and is expected to run through October.

The bodies on display were skinned, dissected and plasticized by anatomists at a Chinese medical school, and loaned to the same touring company that exhibits objects raised from the Titanic.

Premier Exhibitions, which has similar displays touring in six other cities, is one of at least three companies using plasticized cadavers to draw crowds. Its competitors include an exhibit organized by Gunther von Hagens, the German anatomist credited with developing the preservation technique and who gained notoriety for conducting a public autopsy in a London art gallery.

Premier says it has had record-setting attendance in New York, Las Vegas, Seattle and Amsterdam, Netherlands. But the exhibits have drawn critics who question the propriety of using cadavers brought to medical schools by police in countries where, according to the critics, human rights aren't a top priority.

"It's a dressed-up carnival sideshow, and it's going under the guise of education," said Aaron Ginsburg, a pharmacist from Sharon, Mass., who has set up a Web site to vent his opposition. "They may be the bodies of the poor, the disenfranchised; and they may even be political prisoners."

Premier's medical director, Roy Glover, said he has been assured by the Dalian Medical School in China that the donation process is legitimate. The cadavers, he said, were unclaimed bodies that became government property by default, and the exhibit is designed with respect.

"It's not a carnival sideshow. A lot of effort, time, energy and expense were employed to set the exhibit up, and it's designed with an educational intent in mind," said Glover, who taught anatomy at the University of Michigan Medical School for 35 years and ran the school's anatomical preservation lab.

But Ginsburg said he visited a similar exhibit, known as Body Worlds, during a family reunion in Cleveland in 2005 and it disturbed him. "We were aghast at what we saw," he said.

He launched a Web site in May where like-minded visitors can vent their opposition (dignityin boston.googlepages.com).

"No matter how the PR is spun, it's not respectful," said Ginsburg, who has no problem with cadavers and body parts being used for research and medical school training.

"In medical schools, they are being treated with dignity and there's a real medical and educational purpose for them," he said.

Some others agree. Although the exhibits can be educational, they also can dehumanize the people whose bodies are on display, said Ronn Wade, director of the anatomical services division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"The public wants it, and in a certain context there is an educational value to it. But it depends on why people are there and what they take away from the experience," said Wade, who is also director of the Anatomy Board of Maryland.

State law requires the board to acquire and dispose of any unclaimed bodies in a manner that serves the public interest, Wade said. Each year, he holds a memorial service for about 1,500 donated bodies and unclaimed cadavers that come to the anatomy board for distribution to researchers and medical instructors.

The American public may accept the touring exhibits because the bodies come from China, Wade suggested. If the bodies were from the United States, there might be more protests, he said.

"If somebody donated a body to the board and I prepared it that way and put it on display in the Maryland Science Center, what do you think would be the reaction? I don't think it would it be quite the same," said Wade, who has seen similar exhibits in Boston and Atlanta.

The polymer preservation process used to create the exhibits was developed in the 1970s and is commonly used to preserve bodies and body parts so medical schools can use them as educational tools, Wade said.

In general, the exhibits accurately re-create the appearance of cadavers and body parts after a dissection, Wade added, although not many bodies that medical students see are as buff as the cadavers athletically posed in the exhibits.

"They don't have all this muscle on them," he said.

For his part, Glover said the exhibit displays a variety of public-health messages.

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