Gunther von Hagens - Milestones, Pathways, and Goals

Gunther von Hagens is born as Gunther Gerhard Liebchen on January 10, 1945, in Alt-
Skalden near Posen (Posznan) in that today is Poland but then was Germany. When he was only five days old, his parents put him in a laundry basket and begin their flight west from the approching Russians. Their travels are to last six months. They pass through Berlin and Gera and end up in Greiz/Elster. In this Thuringian town in the Vogtland area of (East) Germany, Gunther von Hagens grows up as the middle one of five children.
In Gunther`s early childhood, a bleeding disorder causes frequent hospital-izations, often for several weeks at a time. They make him an outsider and eccentric. Fascinated by his close encounters with the medical profession, he decides early on to become a physician.

From 1951 to 1961 Gunther attends the ten grade Polytechnical High School in Gera and Greiz. Having graduated with the intermediate German high school diploma of Mittlere Reife, he starts his career as an "untrained person" at the county hospital of Greiz, initially working as a doorman, mail carrier, elevator operator, and eventually as assistant to the nursing staff. However, none of these occupations satisfy him, and he attends adult school to obtain the higher level high school diploma, the Abitur. 1965, he registers as a student with the Medical   School of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

At beginning of 1969 is taken into custody in Greiz, is tried and, is sentenced in the country court of Greiz to one year and nine months imprisonment for "attempted unlawful crossing of the border" and "attempted violations of the currency regulations" of the GDR. He serves his sentence in the Cottbus penal institution. For the amount of 40,000 German marks, Gunther Liebchen`s freedom is bought, and on August 27, 1970, he sets foot on Federal German soil for the first time.

He continues his medical studies at Lübeck university and passes his exams there in 1973. In 1974 he obtains his medical license and the same accepts a position as an intern in the Department of Anesthesiology and Emergency Medicine of Heidelberg. While working at the hospital, Gunther quickly discovers that the profession of physician, with its tedious routines, is not for him after all. Thus, he decides to switch to the slower-paced field of anatomy and accepts a position as scientific assistant at the Anatomical Institute of Heidelberg university in July 1975.      

As an anatomical assistant, von Hagens sees, for the first time, specimens embedded in plastic blocks, and he wonders why the plastic has been poured around the specimen in block shape instead of being inside the specimen, stabilizing it from within. This question keeps nagging at him.  He embeds the kidney slices in liquid silicone rubber. he conducts the impregnation slowly.  After hardening the specimen in an incubator, he holds in his hands the first presentable plastinate.  It is January 10, 1977, his 32nd birthday. In March of the same year he submits this process to the German Patent Office. It takes many, many experiments to find a method for removing water and lipids from biological tissues at room temperature, and for replacing them with plastic without causing the specimens to shrink.             

He will spend the next twenty years at the Anatomical Institute of the Heidelberg university as lecturer and scientist. During this time, he continuously enhances the method of plastination. Thus, in 1978, Gunther von Hagens himself, while still working at the university, founds a small business, BIODUR, that will sell plastics and later other plastination supplies and equipment as well.

The plastination method continues to evolve and eventually reaches dimensions that strech the limits of its university home. Thus, in 1993, Gunther founds the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg. Together with his second wife, Angelina Whalley, whom he met as a young colleague in 1987 and married in 1992, he now conduct plastination increasingly on a commercial level.

The great breakthrough, however, is not achieved until a few years later, when the plastinated specimens are publicly displayed for the first time. In 1995, Gunther von Hagens is invited by the Japanese Anatomical Society to participate in an exhibition at the National Science Museum in Tokyo. The exhibition is surprisingly successful - it is visited by more than 450,000 people in only four months. It is followed by other successful exhibitions in Japan, until, in 1997, the plastinates are shown for the first time in Germany as well, namely in Mannheim.
Unlike in Japan, in Germany the BODY WORLDS exhibition, as it will be called from now on, is accompanied by stark public controversies that are triggered again and again by later exhibitions. BODY WORLDS finds supporters and opponents in all segments of the population, and even the Anatomical Institute in Heidelberg is split into two fractions. The disputes make it impossible for Gunther von Hagens to continue working there, and so he leaves the university at the end of 1997. At the same time he is refused recognition of his private Heidelberg institute as a research institution by the German goverment. Consequently, he turns his back on Germany and in 1996 accepts a guest professorship at Dalian Medical University in China. In 2000 he additionally founds a private institute, the Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Company, Ltd.. By 2002 enough material for a second exhibition is created there. The new exhibition tours Asia and is shown for the first time in Seoul, Korea, with overwhelming success. Quite to the contrary, the exhibition in Asia is even officially supported by science and education departments.    

In Europe however, especially in Germany, the controversy surrounding the exhibition refuses to die. It focuses more and more on the person Gunther von Hagens, culminating in personal disparagement early in 2004. From then on, von Hagens concentrates on his work in the U. S. A., taking his exhibition there in that same year. In the United States, just as in Asia, no public criticism of BODY WORLDS is heard. Since Janurary 2005, Gunther von Hagens is visiting professor at New York University`s College of Dentistry.   

In 2006 he returns to Germany and founded Gubener Plastinate GmbH with its public exhibition space PLASTINARIUM in Guben, Brandenburg. For the first time ever, the general public is granted an opportunity to see the laboratories of anatomist, scientist, and inventor of Plastination, Dr. Gunther von Hagens, at the PLASTINARIUM. It is a unique facility: For the first time, here the anatomy exhibition BODY WORLDS is united with hands-on and demonstrative instruction in the Plastination process - all in one and the same bulding.

Gunther von Hagens does not return with a BODY WORLDS exhibition until 2009, 5 years after he had left Germany. This time, he takes the exhibition to Heidelberg, the birth place of Plastination. Ever since then, the BODY WORLDS exhibition are shown all over Germany as well. Once again, they are accompanied by unfortunate debates and regulations. For example, the mayor of Augsburg prevented a sexual plastinate from being shown in that city.   

The debut of the new BODY WORLDS of Animals exhibition takes place at the small zoo of Neunkirchen, Saarland, Germany, in 2010. The initial impulse for this exhibition had been the death of female elephant Samba at the Neunkirchen zoo in February of 2005. In working on the elephant, Gunther von Hagens fulfills a wish of Dr. Norbert Fritsch, the director of the Neunkirchen Zoo. He had donated the giant body to the Institute for Plastination, with a reciprocal agreement that Neunkirchen would be the first place where the plastinate would be shown. He was glad that Samba has not been rendering plant.
Since the spring of 2013, the animal exhibition is shown in the United States.   

Late in 2010, Dr. Gunther von Hagens publicly announces that he has Parkinson`s disease. Since then, he rarely occurs in public.