Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Bit of a Freak Show, but Where's the Harm?; Last Night's Public Autopsy in Brick Lane Was an Unsettling Throwback to the 17th Century - and Yet Gripping Theatre

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

A Bit of a Freak Show, but Where's the Harm?; Last Night's Public Autopsy in Brick Lane Was an Unsettling Throwback to the 17th Century - and Yet Gripping Theatre

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON JENKINS

I HAVE a problem. I cannot stomach Emergency Room, MASH or medical documentaries. Show me blood spurting on the screen and I stumble for the off-button. Corpses may do wonders for ratingsobsessed media moguls, but I prefer a good laugh.

Yet there I was last night on your behalf, watching a German professor chopping up a corpse in Brick Lane, a stone's throw from Jack the Ripper's last job. Gunther von Hagens may be a publicist first and a medical man second and his appearance akin to the Rocky Horror Show. But half a million people have visited his Body Worlds display, most of them respectable. He rates a hearing.

Last night's public autopsy was mildly shambolic, but it seemed a genuine attempt to bring anatomy to a public audience. After watching the pelvis sliced, the head sawn, brain passed around in a dish, the abdomen manhandled and a general sloshing about of organs with pleas for camera close-ups, I needed a drink. But the audience was gripped. A previously sceptical Heidelberg professor told me: "This is the first time I have seen the public show the slighest interest in what I do, a revelation." Anyway, this is a free country. Why should anyone want to stop it?

The doctors are up in arms.

Eager to defend the anatomists' monopoly on dissection, the Government ' s Inspector of Anatomy, Dr Jeremy Metters, regards von Hagens as Andy Gilchrist might regard a volunteer - as a threat.

Under the Anatomy Act 1984, cadavers may be dissected only with a licence.

Von Hagens has none. The police must apparently arrest him.

(This would have been unwise last night.) PROFESSIONS are at their worst at times like this.

The Royal College of Pathologists claimed this week that "patients' lives are at risk" because of a shortage of pathologists. Yet here is the best recruiting ground imaginable. Roger Soames of the Association of Clinical Anatomists deplores the show as "sensation-seeking".

Yet his members take part in human body documentaries.

The Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inn Field has a museum no less ghoulish than Body Worlds, full of limbs and organs in formaldehyde. Yet it is "open only to members of the medical profession". Why? The answer is to exclude the public and protect mystery.

Never was Shaw's maxim more true, that "all professions are conspiracies against the laity".

Von Hagens's technique is to pump dead bodies full of plastic, cut them open and display the result. He shows in graphic detail the anatomical wonderland that lies a few millimetres below the skin that is writing this sentence and the eye that is reading it. Our bodies are foreign countries of which we know little. Von Hagens may be a showman and a little gauche, but his technique of combining education and sensation seems wholly admirable.

Body Worlds must have done more for public understanding of science in six months than the Department of Health and the Royal College of Surgeons have done in 60 years. …

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