Body Worlds and Leonardo

October 16, 2009

The touring exhibit, Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS & The Story of the Heart , continues to fascinate audiences wherever it appears—over 27 million people and counting. Although I had previously seen it in Toronto in 2006, I was happy to accompany my wife Diana to the exhibition, September 13, 2009, at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

The exhibit features more than 200 real human specimens including “whole-body Plastinates” (entire corpses preserved by a silicone-permeating process, with certain areas removed to expose internal features), as well as individual organs, translucent body slices, entire preserved circulatory systems, and so on.

Whenever I see the exhibits I am reminded of Leonardo da Vinci’s detailed anatomical drawings which were the most sophisticated such renderings up to that time. He used “layering” and “cutaway” techniques, and—to learn more about the shape of the brain and the cerebral cortex—“developed an ingenious technique involving the injection of wax into the skull cavity” (Michael White, Leonardo: the First Scientist , New York: St. Martin’s, 2000, p. 270). Leonardo took risks since there were religious prohibitions on post-mortems, which were regarded as heresy, even necromancy. The Pope forced Leonardo to cease his experiments ( ibid ., pp. 267–268).

The opposition to dissecting bodies in Da Vinci’s time is paralleled by Gunther von Hagen’s exhibition of cadavers. For example, in 2007 the Bishop of Manchester accused the exhibitions of Body Worlds in that city of being “body snatchers” and of “robbing” the National Health Service of transplant organs. Some Catholic and Jewish representatives have argued that displaying human remains fails to show due reverence to the human body (see Wikipedia: “Body Worlds” ).

If some religious folk wish to censor the human body, the scientific community rightly appreciates the value of such anatomical exhibits. Science centers, natural history museums, and similar venues have found the tasteful exhibits of Body Worlds to be appropriate for their viewing public and immensely popular. Children and adults are fascinated by what the Buffalo Science Museum terms “an eye-opening journey through the inner workings of the human body.” A brochure advertises, “Real Humans. Real Science. Really Amazing!” Leonardo would have enthusiastically approved.