Body Worlds

July 18, 2008 8:10:00 AM PDT
If you decided to donate your body to science ... how would you want it to be used?For at least 8-hundred Americans, including one hundred fifty Californians, the answer is: Put me on public display!

Why are so many people willing to do just that? We found the answer on special assignment in Los Angeles where a blend of art and science is opening up the world inside our bodies.

The first realistic views of what lies under our skin came to life in 15th century Italy. The artist Leonardo da Vinci dissected bodies, and filled notebooks with what he saw and used that knowledge to create truly lifelike works of art.

In the 21st century an equally convincing portrayal beckons; in fact it's the 'real thing'. Real human bodies donated by people who willingly agreed to become so-called "plastinates" and to be displayed to the public by a company called Body Worlds.

Visitors to this exhibit, like Eve Sig and her grand-daughter Lelyann Montano, are stunned by what they are seeing at this unique exhibit. Eve told us: "Eve- I'm in awe the fact that it is, you know, and these were real people." And Lelyann said: "How exciting this was to see everything inside that we don't' see on the outside."

For more than a decade a German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, has been exhibiting human bodies suspended somewhere between death and decay.

There is no odor, no evidence of fluids. The bodies are in fact very approachable, drawing you in for a closer look. von Hagens developed his patented "plastination" process to replace body fluids, on a cellular level, with various types of plastic that cure under lights and exposure to gases. Only the eyes are artificial as they do not survive the "plastination" process.

The result is a real body with all the original muscles, tissue, bone, tendons and skin right down to the hair and fingernails. Eve Sig wasn't prepared for the number of things she could see: "It's amazing all the parts and bits and pieces we've got making us up."

The full body specimens are intricately posed and sometimes disturbingly re-arranged to educate the viewer according to Jeffrey Randolph, President of the California Science Center: "Sort of pulling apart the pieces to be able to look at the whole. They are in fact quite beautiful while at the same time providing incredible educational value about our bodies."

In 2004, the California Science Center hosted the first North American Body Worlds exhibit but not before it conducted a stringent review of von Hagens, his body donation method and the moral issues such an exhibit poses. Randolph explained that the results were satisfactory: "Our ethics advisors are quite comfortable that in fact what's displayed in this exhibit are people who gave their bodies for that purpose."

But there is more going on here than just an exhibit. Behind the scenes visitors are making the commitment not to just seeing it, but being it. Ernestine Toney-Dixon is one such person: "I was just flabbergasted; I wanted to see it in person."

The middle-aged Toney twins - Ernestine and Erlyne were stunned by that first Body Worlds exhibit four years ago. "Erlyne Toney-Alvaraz: Almost everything we saw we could relate to in one way or another. it was unbelievable."

They returned with their mother. Irma and her daughters eagerly made the decision to become body donors themselves. "Irma Henry, body donor: The way it's presented is very dignified and something you can bring the smallest child in to see." They are three of only eight people of African descent to do so in the world.

85 year old Irma Henry is a Christian who believes the choice she and her daughters have made is in keeping with their faith and their desire to help educate the world. She explains it this way: "And he blew into their nostrils the breath of life and man came to be a living soul. now once the man dies the breathe goes out from his body. Only God could create something like this and to see it with the skin removed ... it's, it's amazing."

Some might say astounding, others disturbing. Mellissa Nelson told us: "Well, I had and interest because I used to smoke." For this young woman who just quit smoking the sight of blackened lungs is a vivid reminder of where she'd been heading.

The exhibition also features 'The Story Of Heart' and how it sustains the rest of our bits and pieces. For Erlyne Toney-Alvaraz, educating the world was a powerful factor in her decision to become a body donor: "I'm excited, I am excited. now I'm not ready to go yet. but when ever I do, it will be fine with me."

The Body Worlds & The Story of The Heart exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles runs through September 7, 2008. For more information on Gunther von Hagens, Body Worlds or the California Science Center see the links above.

California Science Center
www.californiasciencecenter.org
Body Worlds
www.bodyworlds.com

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