Up the close and down the stair,
In the house with Burke and Hare.
Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
Knox, the boy who buys the beef.
William Burke and William Hare were murderers and grave robbers in Edinburgh, England from 1827 to 1828. They sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Dr. Robert Knox, a medical doctor at the Edinburgh Medical College. The corpses were used by medical students for dissection. The case became known as the West Port Murders and led to the passage of the Anatomy Act of 1832 that expanded the legal supply of cadavers in England for medical research and education.
I couldn’t help but think of the West Port Murders, Dr. Knox in particular, when I heard about Body Worlds 2 – a traveling exhibit now at the Museum of Science in Boston. Body Worlds 2 displays more than 200 dissected human bodies manipulated into various poses – The Yoga Lady, The Ballet Dancer, The Skateboarder, and the Soccer Player are a few examples. The bodies of these dead men and women – real dead men and women mind you – are preserved in a patented plastic solution.
Body Worlds 2 and its predessor Body Worlds are the brainchild of Dr. Gunther von Hagens – an East German physician who bears more than a passing resemblence to Freddy Krueger. Unlike Burke and Hare, von Hagens hasn’t murdered anyone. The bodies he dissects and perserves are volunteers who have donated their cadavers to him.
On the surface, the exhibit seems to be reasonable. What better way to understand antomy than to see actual examples on the display? Don’t we all have an innate curiousity about the human form? Don’t we all want to get a peek below the surface of the skin to see how the human body looks and functions? That’s healthy and natural.
But there is something unsettling about a museum display of human corpses flayed, dissected, dipped into plastic, and posed jumping over hurtles or swinging a baseball bat. The Museum of Science is promoting the exhibit as educational, but we all know that it’s the sensationalism of seeing dead people that is drawing the crowds.
The good Dr. von Hagens is quite the gleeful self promoter and he dutifully signs each of the posed dead bodies as if he’s an artist – not a scientist. There’s also a good deal of promotion of his patented preservation process (which I will not name here) that von Hagens sells to medical schools carefully placed on many of the exhibits.
Von Hagens loves to compare himself to Leonardo Di Vinci. "He (Da Vinci) is for me and for so many scientists, a spiritual father. His way of looking at the world and everything in it, allowed him to ponder the unseen and bring it to life refracted through his own imagination," said Dr. von Hagens says in a statement on his web site.
But its another section of the web site where you get a real feeling for the doctor and his exhibits. It’s the “Store” section and there you can buy t-shirts, keychains, mousepads and magnets all adorned with dissected sections of antomy preserved forever in Dr. von Hagens’ solution.
There’s a concept known as honoring the dead. Paying tribute to ancestors and creating sacred resting places for those who came before us. That’s why people get horrified by graveyard vandals knocking over headstones or spray painting the names of rock bands on the sides of monuments. Wouldn’t we be horrified at the prospect of using the remains of 9/11 victims in any tribute or monument to them? Of course – the thought is grotesque and disturbing. So is the thought of a widow preserving her dead husband and posing him at the dinner table.
Von Hagens isn’t Burke and Hare, but he does conjure up comparisons with Dr. Knox – the man buying the beef. Knox was never prosecuted for his role in the West Port Murders – he was a man of science after all.
We can learn a lot from a dead body – and I’m not suggesting that scientists shouldn’t study corpses or use the remains of volunteers for research and study. But where do we as a society draw the line? Where does education stop and exploitation begin?
For me, that line is Body Worlds.