Through a technique called plastination that Hagens invented in 1977, organic tissue, whether human or animal, can be preserved in a way that makes exhibition of organs, muscles, nerves, and other tissue possible. Though this practice has occasionally been criticized as uncouth—earning him the nickname Dr. Tod (Dr. Death) in some German media—the continued popularity of Body Worlds exhibits seems to indicate the general public’s acceptance.
Mr. Hagens himself is planning to include his own body in the exhibit when his time comes. As he has told German tabloid Bild, he suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has made plans for his wife to plastinate his body once he has passed.
Body Worlds exhibits are made up of over 200 plastinated human specimens, including 20 full bodies, as well as organs, organ groups, and transparent body cross sections. The exhibits’ intent, explains the Body Worlds website, is to inform a broad audience about the body’s internal functions and spark interest in the fields of medicine and anatomy, as well as to demonstrate the long-term effect of diseases, nicotine, and alcohol, as well as the mechanics of artificial supports such as knees and hips.
"We live in a very body-minded age," Hagens is quoted as saying in UK publication The Independent. "We have the cult of body-piercing. More and more people go to body-building clubs. Among young people especially, the thinking is going from heaven to earth, soul to body. We don't fear punishment of the soul any more, yet religion remains very body-hostile. Anxiety before death used to be of the day of judgment, but when society is more secularized, and medical knowledge is growing, we understand more and more that we have to fear our body deaths. But there is still this great mystery about the body."
Hagens was born in Alt-Skalden/Posen in former East Germany and studied medicine at the University of Jena. He later spent two years as a political prisoner in the DDR when he was arrested after a failed attempt to defect. The West German government eventually bought his freedom for 40,000 DM.
Between 1977 and 1995 Hagens discovered and refined the plastination process, and ever since his work has revolved around the subject. Since Body Worlds’ premiere in Japan in 1995, the exhibit has been seen in 60 cities across North America, Europe, and Asia. A Body Worlds exhibit that focuses on the bodies of animals (“Körperwelten der Tiere”) opened in Vienna, Austria several years ago.