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Mummy Dummy 7: Public Autopsies

 

Just when you think you've seen and heard everything, another mummy dummy shows up.

The dummy in this case was not the preserved corpse of a 72-year-old German man (though he was the centerpiece). No, the dummy was Gunther von Hagens, a German professor, who held the first public autopsy in London in 170 years on November 20, 2002 on the body of a dead businessman from Germany. The post-mortem was conducted in a London art gallery, where a sell-out crowd of approximately 450 people paid $19 a person to watch the professor's performance.

And a performance it was: von Hagens wore a black fedora (like the doctor, he pointed out, in Rembrandt's 1632 painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,see abovewith his surgical gown to perform the procedure which was broadcast on large screens in the gallery. The organs of the deceased man were also reportedly passed around the audience. And Channel 4, a British TV network, aired an edited version of the show a few hours later.

Government authorities warned that the public autopsy could be illegal, but did nothing to stop von Hagens. A government official indicated that the professor was in violation of the 1984 Anatomy Act (and other laws dating to 1832) because neither von Hagens nor the art gallery were licensed for post-mortems. In fact, two plainclothes police officers and two anatomy professors sat in the audience to judge if the autopsy constituted criminal activity. 

On the other hand, von Hagens announced that he had the permission of the dead man's family. In justifying the public autopsy, he told reporters that, "there is a huge public demand to see what an autopsy entails, especially in light of the fact that this procedure can be ordered on them or their loved ones without their consent according to British law."

Controversy is not new to von Hagens. His work with plastinated mummies has caused quite a stir. Using dead bodies as art is also not new: remember artist Damien Hirst?

And what about the autopsied man? He was a 72-year-old German man who, at the age of 50, was laid off his job. From that point on, he became a heavy drinker. He also smoked four packs of cigarettes a day for many decades. He died in March, 2002. 

If nothing else, the autopsy proved two things: first, the man died from heart failure brought on by smoking and drinking, and second, that 450 people would pay to see von Hagens perform.