July 2, 2007, 4:33 pm

Body Worlds 3: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made!


This was my favorite.

Maybe because I’m a fan of gymnastics, but I could not get over this pose!

The photo is of a “plastinate” human body.

It’s on display in the Body Worlds 3 exhibit.


I had a few free hours this last weekend, and I decided to take a look at the often controversial anatomy exhibition. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry hosted this event.

I would recommend it to anyone who wants to see real anatomy, in action.


My experience with anatomy and physiology was one class, thirty-one years ago, with one gray, formaldahyde soaked elderly cadaver. My eyes burned from the fumes. I barely touched it. It was gross, ugly and, well…blech!

I was eighteen and had never even been to a funeral.

These bodies are stunningly beautiful. The plastination process maintains the colors of the tissues. There is no odor. By using everyday or active poses, the sense of “dead body” is lifted and replaced by an appreciation of what our bodies are and what they can do. You actually feel “life” in these plastinated bodies.

I’m sure my mouth was open through the entire exhibit. There was so much I did not know or had forgotten over the years. I knew what was there, it was the proportions that astounded me.

  • The only thing standing between us and paralysis is a thin cord of nerves about 1/2 inch wide – the spinal cord. It seemed very fragile when viewed in a display of the nervous system, from brain to periphery.
  • The kidneys are so tiny – and now I understand in three dimensions where they lie in the body. I know why a 3 mm kidney stone causes so much agony as it travels down a ureter with a diameter of 1 mm. The spleen was smaller than I thought it was!
  • The uterus, which looms so large in my imagination, is extremely small. All those period cramps come from that tiny sac? Holy cow! The ovaries? Smaller than walnuts – my daughter’s dermoid cysts were larger than the ovaries they inhabited!
  • Sciatica? Well, that explains it!
  • I not only know about COPD, I saw COPD!
  • Cardiac tamponade? I see how it compresses the heart!
  • Smoking? Take a look at the two lungs that look solid black. You’ll never smoke again.
  • I saw why I can’t pass a catheter through an enlarged prostate.

The bodies are posed. Occasionally, body cavities will be flayed open, or muscles separated. Many of the plastinates are not surrounded by any glass, which means you can get up close and really look at the abdominal cavity, see the diaphram in place, get two inches away from muscles, ligaments, tendons.

The oddest thing happens when you view the plastinate body in an “exploded” view (separated in half, three sections or elongated extremities). Your mind will automatically “pull” the body back together in your mind.

I found myself startled at the beginning, deeply moved and minutely studying the anatomy in the middle of the exhibit and feeling almost blase by the end.

Absolutely fascinating.


A few notes: if you are viewing Body Worlds, you are viewing the work of Gunther von Hagens.

  • He is the inventor of plastination, a process invented in 1977 and continuously refined. All bodies were donated by their owners. A few early specimens were obtained from old museum exhibits that were being liquidated (organs, bones, fetuses)
  • No money exchanges hands to the donors who give their bodies for plastination. The donors are responsible for arranging their bodies’ transportation to specific facilities. The only purchasers of plastinates are (1) medical schools/universities, (2) museums and the actual Body Worlds exhibits.
  • When the plastinates are purchased, it is noted clearly on the document that no money is changing hands for the body, but solely to cover the costs of the plastination process.

There are similar exhibits that use bodies obtained in other ways and make no bones about it (no pun intended). I have no ethical issues with this exhibition or with the plastination process.


Some call this exploitation. We see real human skeletons all the time. That is not exploitation, so what changes when the ligaments, muscles and tendons remain?

Why is it exploitation to add the viscera so that we can see the three-dimensional placement in the body? Putting colored polymers through the vessels so we can see the lacy circulatory system, is that exploitation?

Posing the plastinated bodies in living poses so that we can visualize the muscles at work and marvel at life instead of recoiling at death. Exploitation? Not to me.


Why should the human anatomy be relegated to the “anatomic position”, preserved in formadehyde and available only to doctors, nurses and other students of biology?

This visitor to the exhibit, who also happens to be a nurse left Body Worlds 3 with an appreciation of life, deep thankfulness for those who donated their bodies to educate the masses and a better understanding of anatomy that will impact my assessments and my patient teaching.

It is science and by its beauty it’s science that becomes art.

The best investment of two hours I’ve ever made.


Body Worlds 2 is coming to San Jose in September. I’m going and I’m taking as many people as I can with me.

If you get the chance to see any of the Body Worlds exhibits, take advantage of it.

You will be blown away.

See what the Psalmist writer meant when he wrote that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made”!


  • Rhea

    July 2, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    The observations you made at Body Worlds were fascinating. I never noticed kidneys or uteruses (uterii?) while I was looking at the show. If I had been a nurse, I would have gotten a lot more out of the exhibit. I saw it in Boston.

  • POPT

    July 2, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    Sign me up! I’ll go with you! You and I are in the same general neighborhood.

  • TC

    July 2, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    That’s all very nice, but WHERE are the wedding pictures?!

  • Julie

    July 2, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    What an amazing exhibition, I wonder if it might come to the UK?

  • Petri

    July 3, 2007 at 6:30 am

    What a weird coincidence, I just blogged on this same topic! And I completely agree with you. I saw Bodies: The exhibition, and was utterly stunned by the beauty, grace, and tact with which the exhibits were displayed. I wouldn’t mind leaving a legacy like that with my body instead of letting it decay in the ground or being burned up.

  • Margaret

    July 3, 2007 at 7:21 am

    Some may consider it exploitation because the donor estate has to pay for the transport but Mr. Von Hagens is surely not getting any poorer from all of this. If you have no problem with that then you can see that it also provides an unparalleled view into our bodies that previously was available to very few people. I too remember the female cadaver in our anatomy lab, and it was nothing like these bodies.
    I can’t wait for it to come to St. Louis, I really want to see the exhibition.

  • Nurse K

    July 3, 2007 at 9:02 am

    I went to BodyWorlds with my boyfriend when the exhibit was here, and he flat-out refused to go to the section with the babies and the pregnant mother. There was a baby with anencephaly, a fetus who’d died at 20 weeks gestation (the end of what is considered legal for abortion—boy, was that ever enlightening). It was very interesting to see surgical implants and things like that, but the exhibit is mainly, I think, an art exhibit. I never did cadaver dissection, and it wasn’t a requirement, so I’ve never really seen things…in situ.

  • Ali

    July 3, 2007 at 9:14 am

    I went and saw BodyWorlds2 when it was in Toronto a couple years ago. It was fantastic! Just amazing to see. It really was the best anatomy lesson I have ever had. I could have spent days in there. I look forward to seeing it again someday.

  • Vitum Medicinus

    July 3, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    You mentioned that “the plastination process maintains the colors of the tissues.” I think I’ve heard this before too, which is odd because my anatomy prof told me differently – he said that the BodyWorlds exhibits use dyes to get such vivid colors. Perhaps true, as the plastinated exhibits are much more colorful than anatomy lab cadavers and the anatomy lab specimens plastinated by lab staff at my university.

    Other than that unimportant, technical detail for the nerdly inclined, I will say that I have had the fortunate experience of seeing BodyWorlds both before and after studying anatomy, and it is indeed a hugely different experience. Clearly the experience is changed even further after having years of clinical experience, as in your case!

  • Hula

    July 4, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    It’s in town right now and I can’t wait to go. They expect 300k-400k people to go through it while it’s here. Maybe we’ll go this weekend.

  • Vitum Medicinus

    July 5, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Okay don’t hate me (and don’t come try and kill me right away when you see the title) but when you’ve got a couple minutes sit down and read over the latest post I’ve written that was inspired by you!! And once you’ve read the whole thing please do let me know if I offended you because that is definitely not the intention.

  • gypsygrrl

    July 5, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    ohhh kim!!!
    i went to see this exhibit in the spring of 2006 and i was in the middle of Anatomy & Physiology I. i went with a classmate at the urging of our teacher and also from seeing one of the books from a classmate who went before us.

    OMG. fearfully and wonderfully made, that doesnt even cover it.

    it was one of the most exceptional things i think i have EVER seen in my life. because of the place we were in our studies we totally were fixated on the first half of the exhibit, with all the bones and such… i would love to go AGAIN, having completed the second semester of A&P…

    thanks for sharing your thoughts… i think my FAV was the blood vessel family. and your thoughts about what keeps us from paralysis reminded me of the chess player!

    i always used to say in my A&P classes that is it AMAZING we all do not completely fall apart physically on a daily basis, the way our bodies compensate for our mistreatment or inconsistent treatment of it, blows me away…… and the architechture of the spine. Frank Lloyd Wright has nothing on the human body!

    anyone who reads this – GO SEE THIS EXHIBIT! drive hours to see it if its anywhere remotely near you!!!

  • Nickie

    July 7, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    Hi Kim, thanks, as usual for a great post! Do you know if the exhibit can be touched? I don’t know if it would be coming to my city (I think I missed my chance), but I’m curious if I’d be able to examine the bodies. Sounds gross, I know, but I’m a curious person, and want to understand almost everything!

  • sue

    July 11, 2007 at 9:10 am

    I recently went to Body World in Vegas. It was the most fascinating exhibition I’ve ever seen!
    I’m usually grossed out by things like that but I went by myself, was there 1 1/2 hrs! The most remarkable thing I saw was skin taken off a body, laid out on a table in a glass case. Unbelievable that this & the rest can acually be done so PERFECTLY!!!!
    I hope Body World comes back to Phoenix-I’d go 100 times -(even children found it interesting not gross) Thank you again.

  • […] least where anatomy is concerned. See Geez, What a Dumb Nurse. This was actually a response to my Body Worlds post over on Emergiblog (and no, I was not insulted!) Read the whole post – the title is […]

  • Mom de Guerre

    August 21, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Before you go, please consider the controversy surrounding the orgins of the bodies and Gunther von Hagen’s background. (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,344539,00.html)
    It is being called exploitation because Gunther von Hagens, before he could get donated bodies, was obtaining them in China from untracable sources. Several of the bodies had to be returned due to gunshot wounds to the head. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/germany/article/0,2763,1129261,00.html)
    There are 11 body processing plants in Dalain China, right next to the prisons. We should question whether the system with such a horrific human rights record, and also the same one that is poisoning our toys with lead paint can be trusted with this new 2 billion dollar entertainment opportunity. (http://en.epochtimes.com/news/6-3-29/39840.html)

    See http://www.nobodies4profit.org if you’re interested in more information

    Education or Freak Show?

    “It’s all about education? No. It’s not all about that,” said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “It’s about the money. This is an extraordinarily successful entertainment show.”
    Markel and others are concerned that shows like this do not use bodies from consenting donors and do not make public the paper trail showing exactly where the cadavers came from.
    “I’m all in favor of people looking at and understanding the human body,” he said, but added that he thinks there are other ways, besides public spectacle, to educate people about their inner workings. “Frankly, I don’t want to be somebody’s Saturday entertainment.”

About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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