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Sunday, August 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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All laid bare in "Bodies" exhibit

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Bodies: The Exhibition"


The exhibit: 21 whole human bodies and more than 250 organs and body parts on display beginning Sept. 30 and running for six months, depending on demand

Location: 800 Pike St., Seattle, WA 98101 (Across from the Washington State Convention and Trade Center)

Tickets: Adults, $24.50; seniors, $19; children (ages 4-12): $16.

Tickets can be purchased at www.bodiestickets.com or by calling: 877-263-4375

More information: www.bodiestheexhibition.com

An awe-inspiring journey inside the human body.

A ghoulish sideshow that profits from the corpses of Chinese citizens who have no one to bury them.

When it comes to "Bodies: The Exhibition," feelings run to extremes.

For $24.50 a head, Seattle residents will soon have the chance to decide for themselves.

A collection of 21 preserved human cadavers, along with 250 organs and partial-body specimens, will open Sept. 30 for a six-month run in a downtown building that most recently served as temporary home of the Seattle Public Library.

Skinned and dissected to bare muscle, bone and guts, several of the bodies are posed as if in vigorous life: hurling a discus; running; shooting a basket. Others are sliced down the middle. Skulls are cut away to reveal the brain. Spines are splayed open and a spaghetti of nerves teased apart.

"People come with a small amount of apprehension, because they know they are going to be seeing real bodies," said Dr. Roy Glover, a retired University of Michigan medical professor who acts as the exhibit's medical adviser and spokesman. "But they become so engaged in learning, they forget what they're looking at."

"Bodies" is one of several touring cadaver shows pulling in blockbuster crowds around the world. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the German physician who originated the plasticizing technique to preserve the corpses, has estimated more than 20 million people have seen his "Body World" shows.

The version coming to Seattle is a copycat, developed by the company that exhibits artifacts from the Titanic. In six venues, including New York City, Tampa and London, the show has been seen by nearly 2 million people. Several runs, including New York, were extended.

Organizers describe the show as educational — a graphic lesson in human anatomy, body systems and the ravages of smoking, obesity and disease.

"I spoke with a fellow who was going to have surgery on his shoulder, who spent an hour in the skeletal gallery," Glover said. "It was very reassuring to him to know roughly what was going to happen to him, what the rotator cuff actually looks like."

Comments have been overwhelmingly positive, he added.

But some critics question the source of the bodies and the ethics of displaying human beings without consent.

Controversy boosts sales

The shows are reminiscent of anatomy museums that flourished in the 1800s, displaying bodies of people suffering from venereal disease, organs in wax and "freaky things in jars," said Michael Sappol, curator/historian at the National Library of Medicine and author of "A Traffic of Dead Bodies," about dissection, grave robbing and 19th-century American medicine.

"They had very little claim to medical legitimacy, but they always claimed they were educating people," he said.

The city commission in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., refused to allow the show in a public auditorium, and a state medical board tried unsuccessfully to block the Tampa exhibit. Someone stole a fetus from van Hagens' show in Los Angeles.

Generally, the controversy has been good for ticket sales, said Tom Zaller, vice president of Premier Exhibitions, the Atlanta-based company mounting the show.

"There is a very important dialogue that comes from these exhibits, but you can't argue that you're not going to learn something."

The bodies are all of people who died in China from natural causes, Zaller said. Unclaimed by family or friends, they were turned over to medical schools.

The clearinghouse for cadavers used in the exhibit is the medical school in Dalian, a coastal city in China's decaying rust belt that has become the hub of the corpse-processing industry. The university owns the bodies. Premier Exhibitions is paying $25 million over five years to lease several sets for its exhibits.

Zaller said his company has government certificates that guarantee none of the bodies had been a murder victim, prisoner, mental patient or aborted fetus.

"We've been very honest," he said. "We don't lie about where the bodies come from."

The company declined to provide the certificates, saying they are confidential.

That concerns Sharon Hom, executive director of the watchdog group Human Rights in China. The country has such a thriving black market for transplant organs that the government recently adopted new rules to ban the sale of body parts, she pointed out. Couple that with widespread poverty, a strong financial incentive, China's dismal human-rights record and government secrecy, and conditions are ripe for abuse, she said.

"To trust the Chinese government to say these bodies have been procured in a legal and ethical manner is really appalling."

At the least, the company should post the certificates in its exhibits, Hom said.

Practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious group outlawed in China, have picketed "Bodies" exhibits in London and elsewhere. With many of their number "disappeared" or imprisoned in China's penal system, the group is particularly concerned about the provenance of the cadavers, said Christina Riveland, a local practitioner.

Feuding exhibitors

Von Hagens' rival shows include no Chinese cadavers and are made up exclusively of bodies donated for exhibition, according to his Web site. He claims a roster of 6,800 people who want their bodies used in his work.

The relationship between the competing camps is anything but collegial.

The "Bodies" group accused von Hagens of a slander campaign that cost it an exhibit in Cleveland. Von Hagens countered with a copyright suit. The case has been settled, but each side continues to snipe at the other.

Adding to the acrimony, Dr. Sui Hongjin, who runs the Dalian factory where the "Bodies" cadavers are processed, learned his trade from von Hagens, but the men parted company after a dispute.

The financial stakes are high. Premier, the "Bodies" organizer, reported revenues of $13 million and income of more than $7 million in the last fiscal year, nearly double the previous year.

The preservation technique Sui uses is a modernization of von Hagens' "plastination" method, first developed in the 1970s, said Glover, who ran a similar lab at the University of Michigan to preserve bodies and body parts for medical schools.

It can take a year or more to prepare a whole body, mostly spent in the painstaking dissection process, Glover said.

Conducted to the exhibitors' specifications, the dissection takes place while the body is temporarily preserved in a dilute formalin solution. For some of the bodies, this involves carefully separating out the circulatory system, or nerve network. In others, the body is opened in a way to best display organs, the impact of cancer or the way the muscles attach to bones.

Once dissection is complete, the bodies spend up to a week in an acetone bath, which pulls the water out of the flesh. Then, the body is placed in a silicone bath inside a vacuum chamber, which forces the polymer into the tissue spaces vacated by water. The body is still flexible until a catalyst is applied that causes the silicone to harden.

"Then you have a dry, odorless specimen," Glover said.

He concedes the exhibit may not be to everyone's taste, but he says few who have seen it have complained.

"We don't twist anybody's arm to come," he said. "Those that do come learn a great deal."

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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