A latter-day Vesalius

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Gunter von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition is on in London at the moment. von Hagens is a German anatomist who in 1977 invented a technique called plastination for the preservation of tissues, organs or entire bodies.

Plastination is a four-stage process involving fixation, dehydration, forced impregnation and hardening. A sample is first soaked in a solvent such as acetone. When frozen, the solvent slowly replaces all the water and fats in the sample, which is then placed in a bath of liquid plastics (e.g. silicon rubber, polyester or epoxy resins). Creating a vacuum causes the acetone to boil and the liquid plastic to take its place. The sample is the cured using heat, light or gas.

The removal of water and fats, which are normally required by putrefying bacteria, halts the process of decomposition, leaving the sample in a dry, odourless state. Plastination is being used in some medical schools for teaching anatomy.

von Hagens is a latter-day Andreas Vesalius. De Humani Corporis Fabrica (‘On the fabric of the human body’) is Vesalius’ magnum opus. The book, published in 1543, contains exquisite and highly detailed wood-block engravings showing the human body in progressive stages of dissection. The human muscular, vascular, nervous and skeletal systems were skilfully dissected by Vesalius in their entirety. De Humani also contains illustrations of every bone in the human body.

All of the illustrations were produced by commissioned artists, such as Johannes Stephanus, who was employed by the Venetian artist Titian.Vesalius obtained the corpses for his dissections from grave robbers. A judge who became interested in Vesalius’ work made the bodies of executed criminals available to him. In some of the illustrations in De Humani, Vesalius has included the noose around the neck.

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Vesalius (1514-1564) is the father of anatomy and his work a landmark in medical drawing. De Humani is based on careful observation and dispelled many of the misconceptions about human anatomy that had remained since the time of the ancient Greeks.