Dr Gunther von Hagens

Dr Gunther von Hagens - the inventor of plastination
Dr Gunther von Hagens

Gunther von Hagens is a physician, scientist, inventor of plastination and the founder of Body Worlds exhibition or Körperwelten, as known in German. We compiled the critical moments of his life that entirely shaped his carrier and made him "an intellectual adventurer" as described.

His childhood

Gunther von Hagens was born in 1945 in Poland. When the Russian where about to take over occupation of the country from the Germans after World War Two, von Hagens' parents took their lives in their own hands and fled the country. With the ten-day-old baby in a laundry basket and their two older children, they crossed the borders and settled for good in Greiz, a town in East Germany. Von Hagens lived there until the age of 19.

As a child, he suffered a rare blood disorder, haemophilia. That is why he spent a great deal of time around doctors and in hospitals instead of on the playground with other children. He narrowly escaped death at the age of six, when he spent months on the intensive care unit. Yet, the long journey of regaining his health sparked a long-standing interest in science and medicine.

His education

In 1965, Gunther von Hagens started medical school at the University of Jena, Germany. His unconventional way of thinking and flamboyant personality gained enough attention to be mentioned in reports:

"Gunther is someone who does not approach tasks systematically. Due to this quality and because of his imagination, which sometimes causes him to lose sight of reality, he occasionally develops very idiosyncratic and unusual working methods, but never in such a way as to harm the collective interests of his class. On the contrary, his way of working often prompts his fellow students to critically assess their own work."

Time of political dissidence and imprisonment 

During his college years, von Hagens started to question both communism and socialism. He actively participated in protests against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In January 1969, von Hagens travelled through Bulgaria and Hungary dressed as a tourist in an attempt to cross the border into Austria – the west. He failed twice. After his second attempt, he was arrested and extradited to East Germany, where he was jailed for 2 years. He was only 23 years old at the time.

At the time, Gunther von Hagens was considered a ‘threat to the socialist way of life’ and therefore needed rehabilitation. Prison reports about von Hagens say the following: ‘The prisoner has to be educated to develop an appropriate class awareness so that he will follow and respect the norms and rules of our society in future. The prisoner must be made aware of the danger of his behaviour, and his own assessment of his future behaviour as a citizen of the social state must be recorded.’

45 years after his release, Gunther von Hagens can put his experiences into perspective: "The close friendships I made with other inmates there, and the horrible aspects of imprisonment that I was only able to overcome through my imagination have helped me to show solidarity with fellow human beings. When freedom was taken away from me, I gained confidence in my own body and mind, and it made me persistent. Everything I learned in prison has been of great importance to my life as a doctor and inventor of the plastination technique."

The invention of the plastination method

In 1970 West Germany bought von Hagens freedom for € 20.000. He then continued his studies at the University of Lübeck. After completing his residency in medicine, von Hagens pursued a career as a resident and lecturer at the University of Heidelberg’s department Anesthesiology and Emergency medicine. There he realised that his meditative mindset did not fit with the work that was expected from him. In 1977, von Hagens became a resident doctor and teacher at the Institute of Pathology and Anatomy. That year, he invented plastination. He began experimenting with a technique of conservation unlike any other that was used at that time. Instead of preserving from the outside, he injected plastic into the tissue cells stimulating preservation from the inside out. It took him six years to refine his plastination technique. Today, more than 400 institutes in 40 countries around the world use Gunther von Hagens's invention to preserve anatomical specimens for medical training.

Plastination for education

Together with his wife, von Hagens opened the doors of the first Body Worlds exhibition in Japan. His tremendous success crossed many continents from Asia to Europe, to America and Africa. Revolutionary, but controversial at the same time, Body Worlds exhibitions became paramount in breaking taboos and changing beliefs about life and death.

In 2014, the Body Worlds exhibition came to one of the most tolerant and open-minded capitals of the world – the city of Amsterdam. It is located in the heart of the city denoting centrality of humankind at the core of its evolution.

Body Worlds – The Happiness Project

At Body Worlds, you learn about organs and how parts of your body are connected, shaping up an unseen world beneath the skin. Here you’ll see that what matters most is on the inside. Yet, what is beneath the skin cannot all be seen. Emotions that you experience can improve or deteriorate the resilience of your body. Come and take a journey through the human body and discover how happiness contributes to your overall well-being.