The slightly grotesque technique of plastination perfectly preserves anatomical specimens.
Developed in 1977 by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, plastination is a preservation technique that essentially stops the decomposition process by swapping out the liquid in organic tissue with plastic polymers, keeping the original sample intact.
To halt decomposition, the specimen must be drained of all liquid and fat, which comprises about 70% of the human body. This prevents the cell enzymes released after death from producing the putrefaction bacteria needed to break down tissue. The fluids are initially replaced with acetone, a solvent that readily evaporates. Then a polymer solution is added — such as silicone rubber, polyester or epoxy resin — and the specimen is set to boil at a low temperature in a vacuum. As the acetone vaporizes, the polymer is left behind, leaving cells that are filled with liquid plastic. The plastic is then hardened with gas, heat or ultraviolet light, and the specimen is set for display with the help of wires, needles, clamps or foam blocks. The process can take up to a few weeks for individual organs and up to a year for entire human bodies.
Von Hagens created the Body Worlds exhibitions in the 1990s to display the roughly 200 full human bodies he had plastinated. To date, more than 26 million people around the world have seen the traveling exhibitions. Von Hagens also established a body donation program 20 years ago that has enlisted more than 9,000 donors who’ve agreed to allow their bodies to be plastinated after their deaths. Naturally, von Hagens, who’s reportedly ill with Parkinson’s disease, plans to donate his own body as well.
Originally published in GEEK Magazine, which you can find here!
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Image: The Institute for Plastination