Seeing ancient Egyptian mummies like King Tut tells us that people have been preserving dead bodies for a long time. While King Tut looks pretty good for being more than 3,000 years old, he doesn’t exactly look ... fresh! Let’s fast forward to today, where bodies and organs can be perfectly preserved by plastination to become durable, odorless and non-toxic.
You’ve probably heard about exhibits that display real dissected human bodies and organs. These bodies have been plastinated.
Did you know? Plastination was invented in 1977 by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who also developed the first human body exhibit, called Body Worlds. He uses bodies that people have donated for plastination after their death.
Basically, plastination is the replacement of all body and cellular fluids with plastic (such as silicone or epoxy that will harden after treatment).
Did you know? Polymers are molecules made up of repeating units. Polyethylene plastic is a common synthetic polymer. Wood cellulose and DNA are examples of natural polymers.
There are four steps in the process:
Fixation: The body is injected with a formaldehyde solution to prevent it from decomposing.
Dehydration: The body is placed in a bath of cold acetone which slowly replaces all water and fat.
Forced Impregnation: The body is submerged in a liquid polymer solution and put under a vacuum. This forces out the acetone and leaves the polymer in its place.
Curing: The body is finally exposed to light, heat or gas to cure (harden) the polymer.
Did you know? It takes 1,500 working hours — about one year — to plastinate a whole body.
In addition to whole bodies, individual organs are routinely plastinated to be used for teaching anatomy classes in medical and veterinary schools. If you live near Calgary, Alta., you can see plastinated human bodies in the Body Worlds & The Brain exhibit at the Telus World of Science Centre which opened April 30, 2010 and runs until Sept 6, 2010. (http://www.calgaryscience.ca/exhibits/exhibits/bodyworlds/)
For information about the plastination process:
For photos of plastinated organs preserved at the University of Michigan:
For a recent video clip about large animal plastination from Discovery Channel:
For an overview of modern techniques of body preservation:
Article first published on May 9, 2010.