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TELEVISED AUTOPSY DISSECTS PUBLIC OPINION
David Cohen, London
Thursday, November 21, 2002
Under the gaze of a 300-strong audience and a battery of TV cameras, the
UK's first public post mortem examination for 170 years took place on
"I start with the 'Y' cut," declared anatomist Gunther von Hagens, creator
of the controversial Body Worlds exhibition, at a former brewery in London.
The incision across the chest of the cadaver and down the centre of the
torso to the groin began his defiance of Her Majesty's Inspector of Anatomy.
The Inspector, Jeremy Metters, had declared the autopsy illegal: "Professor
Von Hagens does not hold a licence under the Anatomy Act, and the premises
in which the post mortem is intended to take place are not licensed."
After the event the police issued a statement saying: "Police officers
attended the event, accompanied by expert witnesses. A report will be
submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service in due course and if any offences
are identified then appropriate action will be taken."
The public autopsy had been justified by von Hagens as demystifying the post
mortem examination, which anyone might have to sanction for a dead relative.
He likened the medical profession to medieval priests who would not allow
ordinary people to read the Bible. And he also cited the concerns voiced by
doctors at the decline in post mortems following scandals in which some UK
hospitals retained organs without permission.
But many doctors criticised the show as a publicity stunt designed to raise
von Hagens' profile, rather than that of anatomy. Harold Ellis, an anatomist
at Guy's Hospital Medical School, London, left half-way through in disgust:
"I think he is a charlatan. It looked like a butcher's shop."
Cause of death
The overall reaction of the audience was mixed. A few people left the room
when von Hagens produced a hacksaw and announced he was about to cut open
And by the second half of the evening, when organs taken from the body were
analysed to establish the cause of death, the audience had significantly
thinned. But when parts of brain, lung, and kidney were passed around the
audience on trays, the response was pure fascination.
When the organs were tipped back into the empty body, a piece fell to the
floor and was quickly scooped up. A mixture of nervous laughter and horror
rippled through the audience.
Artist Jake Chapman, who came out of "basic curiosity", commented: "It's
been very carefully stage managed. I think Von Hagens has an idealistic
notion that showing bodies will demystify death, but this was like
pornography. Maybe it's his ego that needs dissecting."
Another concern was that the autopsy did not in fact replicate a standard
post mortem. The cadaver of the 72-year-old man had been preserved in
formaline for the eight months since he died.
John Lee, a consultant histopathologist from Rotherham General Hospital in
South Yorkshire told New Scientist: "I regret the body was not fresh. It
made the process more drawn out than it could have been."
Tanja Smyth, an osteopathy student in the audience agreed: "This didn't look
real, but it's better than nothing, it's a step forward."
But Lee, who provided a commentary for the audience, added: "I don't think
it would have gone ahead with a fresh body for health and safety reasons."
PREVIOUS NHNE NEWS LIST STORIES:
HUNDREDS MISS OUT ON AUTOPSY (11/20/2002):
AUTOPSY TO BE PERFORMED ON BRITISH TV (11/20/2002):
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