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Mankind has been fascinated with uncovering the secrets of the human body ever since the ancient Egyptians first began to distinguish individual bodily organs. The study of the human anatomy remains a cornerstone of medical education, with scientists and doctors consistently making medical advancements which both prolong and save human life. Over the last decade alone, a myriad of amazing developments in science including stem cell research and drug therapies have revolutionised medicine, promising a more optimistic future for us all.
This summer, a friend and I visited an exhibition in Ljubljana, Slovenia called Bodies Revealed, which provided a fascinating insight into the anatomy of the human body. Using an innovative preservation process, the exhibition displayed over 200 actual human bodies which were dissected and displayed in glass cabinets, offering up the chance to view the various systems of the human body.
Specimens were prepared through a process called polymer preservation, in which human tissue is preserved using rubber. Tissue water is removed, and the tissues are refilled with liquid silicone rubber. The silicone rubber is hardened, resulting in an end product which can be easily examined without any chance of deterioration as a result of natural decay. The length of this process varies, with small organs taking only a week or so to prepare, whereas a full body specimen may take up to a year.
Dr. Roy Glover, chief medical director for Bodies Revealed explains the aim of the exhibition: “Seeing promotes understanding, and understanding promotes the most practical kind of body education possible. The body doesn’t lie!”
The exhibition was divided up into nine different galleries devoted to different systems within the body. The skeletal system, muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, reproductive, urinary and integument systems were displayed throughout the venue. Within the different galleries, Bodies Revealed demonstrated the effects of pressing health concerns including obesity, breast cancer, colon cancer, ectopic pregnancy and arthritis to name but a few. The risks and damages caused to the body by certain lifestyle choices such as smoking and dietary excesses were demonstrated. In one instance a blackened lung was presented in contrast to a healthy, non-smokers lung, the difference being strikingly evident. It was encouraging to see that the exhibition had provided a large transparent box to persuade visitors who smoked to deposit their packets of cigarettes in it. On the day we visited the exhibition, the box was a good quarter full.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the exhibition was a gallery dedicated to ectopic pregnancy. Although this was a highly emotive experience, it was also extremely thought provoking. The gallery displayed foetuses from seven up to 20 weeks, so that visitors could easily see the rapid development of the foetus. From just seven weeks, the foetus was a delicate baby, formed with heart, brain, appendix, pancreas, tooth buds, ears, hands and feet. The speed of growth up to 20 weeks was astonishing. Weighing around 10.5 ounces and measuring 10 inches from head to heel at 20 weeks, the baby was surprisingly very much formed, which brought the controversy around late termination of pregnancies at 24 weeks into sharp focus.
Despite certain ethical concerns surrounding the exhibition with regards to the morality of viewing of human remains, the exhibition has been a huge success since its origins, having attracted over 30 million visitors from around the world. Professor Anita Allen, a bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania contested that spending money to ‘gawk’ at human remains should raise serious concerns, while Thomas Hibbs, a Baylor University ethicist takes one step further by claiming the exhibition is on par with pornography, through the reduction of the bodies which have been ‘stripped of any larger human significance’. There have also been accusations that the bodies used in the exhibition are those of executed Chinese prisoners and victims of torture, understandably causing a great deal of public upset. However, a statement from the exhibitors in 2010 confirmed that the bodies displayed in the galleries are those of individuals who had chosen to donate their bodies to medical science and had died from natural causes.
My own experience of Bodies Revealed was fantastic, and I thought the exhibition tasteful and informative as oppose to lurid or voyeuristic, as it has been previously branded by some members of the public and certain academics. Donating organs or even the entire body to scientific research is a productive and useful way for the body to be used after death for the benefit of others.