From his early years as a researcher at the University of Heidelberg, where he invented his science of plastination in 1977, Dr. Gunther von Hagens made a distinction between clinical anatomy and public anatomy, between the use of bodies without consent common in clinical anatomy for the training of medical students, and the ethical imperative for informed legal consent in the case of plastination and eventually public anatomical exhibitions.
The reason for this was very sound. In clinical anatomy, after students have dissected a body and used every part of it for medical study, it is given a ritualized finality either through cremation or burial. In Plastination, there is no such finality. The body is preserved permanently.
By 1982, Dr. von Hagens was firmly convinced that informed legal consent had to be the ethical backbone of his science and the organizing principle of plastination because plastinated bodies would be preserved, in Dr. von Hagens words, for "didactic eternity, longer than the mummies and pharaohs of Egypt."
His convictions were so strong that he began the world’s first body donation program for plastination. He wrote to more than 3000 people who were registered donors in the University of Heidelberg’s anatomy department donor program telling them about his new science and inviting them to become donors in his new body donation program for Plastination. 1600 of them were interested and became the first donors. In 1993, the Institute for Plastination took over the management of the body donation program.
With the creation of the BODY WORLDS exhibitions, there were new elements to be taken into consideration: that of public display and the charging of admission to the public to view the plastinated specimens. Dr. von Hagens consulted philosophers, ethicists, religious, and medical professionals to refine his thinking on the importance of informed legal consent. It seemed clear that there was a fundamental human right at stake, a human right that was inviolable--that of an individual’s right to choose his or her own post-mortal state. It was quite clear to him that it would be ethically untenable to have a deceased person undergo plastination to be put on display in a museum setting—without his or her informed legal consent.
As of March 2015, this program, the source of the bodies in BODY WORLDS, has more than 15,000 donors worldwide, 13,843 living donors and 1,557 deceased donors. There is a cultural and racial dimension to body donation to the Institute’s program. Most of the donors, more than 13,000 are German because that is where the Institute is based, and also because millions of Germans have seen BODY WORLDS. Body donation to science is in keeping with the cultural history, traditions. and sensibilities of Germans. The second largest group are North Americans. We have 1,405 donors from North America.
All the whole-body plastinates and the majority of the specimens on display in Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS exhibitions stem from this Body Donation Program; only some organs, fetuses and specific specimens that show unusual conditions come from old anatomical collections and morphological institutes.