I saw dead people

The Egyptians and other ancient civilisations used to bury their royalty in tombs encased deep within pyramids.

The BODIES exhibition
The BODIES exhibition

It is sort of appropriate then that the modern ode to the Egyptian pyramids – the impressively triangular Luxor casino and hotel in Las Vegas has at its centre a room full of preserved dead people.

I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Bodies exhibition when I was in Vegas last week for the Consumer Electronics Show and must say, the US$35 price of admission was well worth it.

It sounds a bit ghoulish and indeed it actually is, to spend an hour wandering around looking a dissected bodies, diseased bits of lungs, livers and hearts, real human beings stripped of their skin and any hint of privacy. But I came away from Bodies with a hugely increased appreciation for how parts of the body work and the sheer genius of human biology.

A couple of real-life parallels last week heightened the experience. I visited Bodies just a couple of days after congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by a lunatic gunman in Tucson, Arizona – Giffords survived and remains in a critical condition but six others were killed in the massacre. While science journalists like CNN’s neurosurgeon turned newsman Sanjay Gupta tried to explain the impact of a bullet passing through the brain, at Bodies I was able to hold part of a human brain in my hand and chat with a helpful expert about massive brain trauma. The previous night I’d also watched the movie 127 Hours, about a guy who managed to get his hand trapped by a rock in the Arizona desert and ended up having to hack it off with a blunt penknife. Peering at wrists with the skin peeled away revealing the tendons, nerves, veins and bones beneath I was given a deep appreciation for the hellish task the rock-climber embarked on when he opened his penknife!.


One of the most fascinating thing about Bodies is the remarkable techniques they have used to preserve real human body parts and entire bodies. We are not talking about bodies suspended in vats of formaldehyde.

The bodies on display are free of cases, unobstructed by glass. Propped up on stands, their skeletons artfully reconstructed to show the people in various positions, the specimens have been subjected to polymer preservation.  There’s some information on the process on the Bodies Exhibition website. Here’s how the process works:

1.  Anatomists fix a specimen with chemicals to temporarily halt the decaying process. They then dissect it to expose important structures.

2. All of the water is removed from the specimen by replacing it with acetone.

3. The specimen is placed into a liquid silicone mixture within a vacuum chamber. Under vacuum, the acetone becomes a gas that is completely replaced by the polymer mixture.

4. Lastly, the silicone polymer is hardened. The end result is a dry, odorless, permanently preserved specimen containing no toxic chemicals. It retains the look of the original, but functions as if it were rubber.

The bodies are sourced from China and were preserved in Beijing, which has become a world centre of excellence in body preservation. When the exhibition launched, there was some controversy about where the bodies came from. The Vegas personnel were at pains to point out that the bodies are those of anonymous people who had donated themselves to science, but when the exhibition came to parts of the US initially, there was concern that it couldn’t be guaranteed that the bodies were not those of executed or mistreated Chinese prisoners. As I looked at the skinless faces of the bodies, I couldn’t help wondering who they were – and how they had died.

A particularly impressive part of the exhibition focuses on the blood vessels of the circulatory system. Paint or dye has been injected through the circulatory system so you can see the network of blood vessels – it is visually stunning and gives an indication of the complexity of the human body.

Overall, Bodies was a fascinating experience. I’ve seen dead bodies before but seeing them stripped of their skin is something else entirely – not for the faint-hearted but very much for the anatomically curious…

One Comment

  1. Siouxsie Wiles

    Hi Peter

    I saw the original Body Worlds exhibition in London in the mid 90’s and remember having very mixed feelings about it. It was simultaneously the most absorbing, fascinating, disgusting yet exciting thing I’ve ever seen. Like you, I found myself wanting to know who they were and what kind of life they had had.

    At that time, there were various question-marks over the source of some of the bodies, esp those involved in the early experiments to develop the technique of plastination. As you say, the fact that it is all done in China has raised concerns that the bodies weren’t really donated (….at least not by the owners of said bodies!).

    The guy who started the whole thing, Gunther von Hagens, is no stranger to controversy, staging a live autopsy in the UK back in 2002 which was shown on one of the main TV channels. This went on to become a TV series where he and a professor of pathology did dissections arranged around themes of organs or fatal diseases.

    I also remember seeing a show where they interviewed some people who had agreed to donate their bodies to von Hagens. It was quite sad to hear some of the reasons. One of the people interviewed was a morbidly obese woman who was probably suffering from depression. She wanted von Hagens to make her beautiful. She seemed to think that he would strip away all her fat and finally she would be thin, but in all liklihood he would use her as an example of what morbid obesity looks like from the inside. Very sad story.

    Saying that, I’ve just arrived in Vancouver for a conference and I see there is a Bodies exhibit on at the moment so may well go along for a refresher!

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