Gunther von Hagens Biography

Gunther von Hagens Biography on Monsters and Critics


"Dr. Gunther von Hagens" (b. "Gunther Liebchen", January 10, 1945) is a controversial anatomist who invented the technique for preserving biological tissue specimens called plastination. He is heavily involved in its promotion and developed the Body Worlds exhibition of human bodies and body parts. Von Hagens wears his trademark black fedora, even while performing public dissections.


He was born Gunther Gerhard Liebchen in Skalmierzyce near Kalisz, Reichsgau Wartheland, in what is now western Poland. At the age of five days his parents took him on a six-month trek west to escape the imminent Soviet occupation. His father Gerhard Liebchen had served in the German SS as a cook. Gunther grew up in East Germany. The family lived briefly in Berlin and its vicinity, before finally settling in Greiz, a small village where von Hagens remained until age nineteen.

A hemophiliac, as a child he spent six months in hospital after cutting himself. This stimulated an interest in medicine, and in 1965 he commenced studies in medicine at the University of Jena. He was arrested after political protests and an attempt to escape to West Germany was punished with two years in jail. West Germany bought his freedom in 1970 and he continued his medical studies in Lübeck, and received a doctorate in 1975 from the University of Heidelberg. There he would work at the Institutes of Anatomy and Pathology as a lecturer for twenty two years.

Dr von Hagens is best known for his plastination technique, which he invented in 1977 and patented in the following year. Subsequently, he developed the technique further, and founded the Institute of Plastination in Heidelberg in 1993. He has been visiting professor in Dalian, China since 1996, where he runs a plastination center, and also directs a plastination center at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Since 2004 he is also guest professor at New York University, College of Dentistry.

Von Hagens developed the Body Worlds exhibition, showing numerous cadavers plastinated in various poses and dissected to various degrees. The exhibition went on tour in 1995, and has met with public interest and controversy in numerous cities around the world since. Critics contend that the exhibition is sensationalist and that the artistic, lifelike poses into which the plastinated cadavers have been fixed are disrespectful. The show, and von Hagens' subsequent exhibitions "Body Worlds 2, 3 and 4", are nevertheless very popular; von Hagens says that they have received nearly 25 million visitors. His newest exhibit, 'Body Worlds 4,' premiered at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester on 22 February 2008.

To produce specimens for the Body Worlds exhibition, von Hagens employs 340 people at five laboratories in four different countries. Each laboratory is categorized by specialty, with the China laboratory focusing on animal specimens. One of the most difficult specimens to create was the giraffe which appeared in 'Body Worlds 3 & The Story of the Heart?. The giraffe took three years to complete--- ten times longer than the amount of time it takes to prepare a human body. Ten people were required to move the giraffe because its final weight, like all specimens after Plastination, was equal to its original.

The Body Worlds exhibits were featured in a supposed Miami exhibition in the 2006 film "Casino Royale," although the actual location for the exterior shots was the Ministry of Transport in Prague. Von Hagens himself makes a cameo appearance, and can be seen leading a tour past where James Bond kills a villain.


After several legal challenges to the Body Worlds exhibit in Germany, in the Summer of 2004 von Hagens announced it would be leaving the country permanently.

In 2002 von Hagens performed the first public autopsy in the UK for 170 years, to a sell-out audience of 500 people in a London theatre. Prior to performing the autopsy, von Hagens had received a letter from Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy, the British government official responsible for regulating the educational use of cadavers. The letter warned von Hagens that performing a public autopsy would be a criminal act under section 11 of the Anatomy Act 1984. The show was attended by officers from the Metropolitan Police, but they did not intervene and the dissection was performed in full. The autopsy was shown in November 2002 on the UK's Channel 4 television channel; it resulted in over 130 complaints, an OFCOM record, but the Independent Television Commission ruled that the program had not been sensationalist and had not broken broadcasting rules. A planned public dissection in Munich was cancelled.

In 2005 Channel 4 screened four programs entitled "Anatomy for Beginners", featuring von Hagens and pathology professor John Lee dissecting a number of cadavers and discussing the structure and function of many of the body's parts. A four part follow-up series entitled "Autopsy: Life and Death" aired on Channel 4 in 2006, in which von Hagens and Lee discussed sexual diseases with the aid of dissections. In November 2007, another series of 3 programmes was shown entitled "Autopsy: Emergency Room", showing what happens when the body is injured.

Von Hagens is currently developing new body sectioning methods that can yield very thin slices, which can then be plastinated. The slices can be used for anatomy studies. He is also developing similar techniques for larger specimens such as an elephant. He has developed a secret lab, with an entrance behind a movable staircase, where he is developing his new wafer plastination techniques. He is on record as commenting that after death he plans to donate the plastinated wafers of his body to several universities, so that in death he can (physically) teach at several locations, something that he cannot do while alive.

Von Hagens is currently married to Dr. Angelina Whalley, who is the former creative designer of the Body Worlds exhibit. He has three children from his first marriage and also retains the surname von Hagens which is that of his first wife. When appearing in public, even when performing anatomical dissections, von Hagens always wears his trademark black fedora.

Von Hagens has said that his grand goal is the founding of a 'Museum of Man' where exhibits of human anatomy can be permanently shown. He does not seem to be deterred by the controversies that have dogged his work, and has often made detailed public statements about his positions.

Legal accusations

Von Hagens has a guest professorship from Dalian Medical University and an honorary professorship from Bishkek State Medical Academy he is also a Guest Professor at the New York College of Dentistry.

In 2003, the University of Heidelberg filed a criminal complaint against him, claiming that he had misrepresented himself as a professor from a German university in a Chinese document, and that he had failed to state the foreign origin of his title in Germany. After a trial, he received a fine in March 2004. On April 25 2005, a Heidelberg court sentenced him to a fine of 108,000 euros (equivalent to a prison term of 90 days at the daily income assessed by the court) for one count of using an academic title that he was not entitled to, but acquitted him on four other counts. On appeal a higher court in September 2006 reduced the penalty to a warning with a suspended fine of 50,000 euro, which under German law is not deemed a prior criminal conviction.

In 2003, an animal rights organization filed a complaint alleging that von Hagens did not have proper papers for a gorilla he had plastinated. He had received the cadaver from the Hanover Zoo, where the animal had died. German authorities demanded the removal of the gorilla during the 2004 exhibition in Frankfurt, but von Hagens prevailed in court and the animal was restored.

Hamburg prosecutors investigated charges of disturbing the dead, based on his photographing plastinated corpses late at night all over Hamburg.

There were legal proceedings against von Hagens in Siberia regarding a shipment of 56 corpses to Heidelberg.

In October 2003, a parliamentary committee in Kyrgyzstan investigated accusations that von Hagens had illegally received and plastinated several hundred corpses from prisons, psychiatric institutions and hospitals in Kyrgyzstan, some without prior notification of the families. Von Hagens himself testified at the meeting; he said he had received nine corpses from Kyrgyzstan hospitals, none had been used for the Body Worlds exhibition, and that he was not involved with nor responsible for the notification of families.

In January 2004, the German news magazine "Der Spiegel" reported that von Hagens had acquired some corpses from executed prisoners in China; he countered that he did not know the origin of the bodies and went on to cremate several of the disputed cadavers. German prosecutors declined to press charges, and Von Hagens was granted an interim injunction against "Der Spiegel" in March 2005, preventing the magazine from claiming that Body Worlds contain the bodies of executed prisoners.

In February 2004, the German "Süddeutsche Zeitung" confirmed earlier reports by the German TV station "ARD" that von Hagens had offered a one-time payment and a life-long pension to Alexander Sizonenko if he would agree to have his body transferred to the Institute of Plastination after his death. Sizonenko, reported to be one of the world's tallest men at 8'0' (2.44 m), formerly played basketball for the Soviet Union and is now plagued by numerous health problems. He declined the offer.


"Animal and vegetal tissues permanently preserved by synthetic resin impregnation", filed November 1977, issued May 1980

"Animal and vegetal tissues permanently preserved by synthetic resin impregnation", filed November 1979, issued July 1981

"Method for preserving large sections of biological tissue with polymers", filed August 1980, issued March 1982

Further reading

"Pushing the Limits" (... more) - Encounters with Gunther von Hagens. "Biography". Ed. Angelina Whalley 2005 In English

"Der Grenzgänger - Begegnungen mit Gunther von Hagens" Deutsche Ausgabe / In German. Herausgeber: Angelina Whalley, Franz Josef Wetz Hardcover, 293 Seiten, reich bebildert. ISBN 3-937256-01-6

"Body Worlds - The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies" by Gunther von Hagens Amazon-UK ASIN: B000Q2MCDU

"No Skeletons in the Closet" - a response to corpse scandals in Kyrgizstan 13 November 2003

Franz Josef Wetz, Brigitte Tag (eds.): "Schöne Neue Körperwelten, Der Streit um die Ausstellung", Klett-Cotta Verlag, Stuttgart 2001. Sixteen authors discuss the various ethical and aesthetical aspects of Body Worlds, in German.

Liselotte Hermes da Fonseca: "Wachsfigur - Mensch - Plastinat. Über die Mitteilbarkeit von Sehen, Nennen und Wissen", in: Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte (1999), Heft 1.

Doms, Misia Sophia: "Die Ausstellung 'Körperwelten' und der Umgang mit der endlichen Leiblichkeit". In: Volkskunde in Rheinland Pfalz 17/1 (2002). S. 62-108.

Liselotte Hermes da Fonseca und Thomas Kliche (Hg.): Verführerische Leichen - verbotener Verfall. "Körperwelten' als gesellschaftliches Schlüsselereignis", Lengerich u.a.: Pabst Verlag 2006

Nina Kleinschmidt and Henri Wagner: "Endlich unsterblich? Gunther von Hagens - Schöpfer der Körperwelten". Bastei Lübbe, 2000, ISBN 978-3-404-60493-7. A very sympathetic biography of Gunther von Hagens, in German.

Torsten Peuker and Christian Schulz: "Der über Leichen geht. Gunther von Hagens und seine 'Körperwelten". Links, 2004, ISBN 978-3-86153-332-0. A very unsympathetic biography of Gunther von Hagens, in German.

External links

(Official Site of Gunther von Hagens)

(BBC report: 'Controversial autopsy goes ahead')

(BBC report: 'The plastination professor')

(BBC report on ITC's ruling on the autopsy TV program)

(British Red Cross news story reporting Red Cross involvement in Autospy: Emergency Room)

(Channel 4's page on "Anatomy for Beginners") , with photos of the dissections

(Biography) , by the "Chicago Tribune", 31 July 2005

( 'I See Dead People') , 5 June 2005

(NPR Audio: ") , 10 August 2006

(Gunther von Hagens interview) 5 June 2008


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article about Gunther von Hagens.