One Man’s Dead Body is Another Man’s Teaching Tool

Oct. 2011

TUCSON, Ariz. – September, 2011 TUCSON—The smell of formaldehyde overwhelmed the tiny, sterile room with two stainless steel tables. His body lay lifeless and naked, except for a tiny towel covering his groin, on the table closest to the door. Scissors were stuck into his neck all the way up to the finger holes, strategically placed to help the fluids drain from his stiff body. A small but steady stream of reddish-brown fluid drained out of his mouth, down the side of his face, and onto the table underneath his neck.

Photo by Steve & Michelle Gerdes

Photo by Steve & Michelle Gerdes

A moment later a stream of the same fluid spurted into the air in a small arc from his mouth. Jared Alvarado, who runs the morgue at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, threw a clean, white towel over his face to stop the squirting. In a few short moments, reddish-brown stains appeared all over it. A slow gurgling noise emerged from his mouth as the fluid drained. It will take a day or two for all of the fluid to leave his body, then it will be wrapped in thick, clear plastic and stored in the morgue’s cooler, which can hold up to 60 bodies, for about a month while it cures, Alvarado says.

After that, the body will become an educational resource at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Since 1967, the College of Medicine has run the Willed Body Program, where people can voluntarily donate their bodies for educational purposes to the College. Bodies are used for educational purposes for anywhere from 1 to 24 months before the cremated remains are returned to the families. However, if a body is permanently donated, parts of it may be transformed into semi-permanent teaching tools at the University of Arizona College of Medicine’s Plastination Science Laboratory.

Plastination was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, a process that “makes it possible to preserve individual tissues and organs that have been removed from the body of the deceased as well as the entire body itself,” his website Bodyworlds says.  The process sucks water and fats out of the tissue, replacing them with polymers. The result is a durable, non-toxic specimen suitable for use in classroom environments, says Joshua Lopez, who runs the Plastination lab.

Lopez has a background in biology and mortuary science. He says the Willed Body Program at the University of Arizona receives about 130 donated bodies annually, after which the permanent donations are dissected, and various body parts and organs are then turned into plasticized specimens. The primary benefit of working with plastinates is that they last much longer than wet cadavers, up to 10 years, he says.

Lopez grabs two plasticized stomachs from a shelf in his office. One is flat and cream-colored, split down the side, and reveals the thick wrinkles of the inner lining of the stomach. The other is fully intact and inflated, and reddish-pink in color. When squeezed, air poofs out from the top, sort of like a dog toy.

“It’s trial and error,” Lopez says, helping to explain the difference between the flat and inflated stomachs. But that’s what makes it fun, he suggests.

“There’s a lot of room to sort of play because there is no how-to course,” he says.”There is a lot of freedom just to explore, to be creative, to learn new things,” he adds, stating that here is no formal training program for plastination.

Lopez experiments a lot in his lab and says he enjoys it, but he isn’t content with the lab space, which he shares with University of Arizona medical students.

“The lab is a disaster,” he notes, adding that the lab has no sprinkler system, a seeming hazard given that the plastination process requires copious amounts of acetone, which is stored in three bright yellow cabinets marked “flammable.” Should anything happen, it would take about $200,000 to replace the equipment in the modest and unassuming lab, says Lopez.

The lab consists of three rooms, littered with beakers, refrigerators, coolers, strange machines with tubes, and buckets of human organs. The lab is capable of plasticizing half a body.

Tucked away in a far corner of the lab on a gray cart wrapped in a white plastic cloth, Lopez exposes a torso in the final phase of the plastination process. The man’s head is split down the middle and the eyes and brain have been removed, but his graying nose hair and eyebrows remain intact, the last lingering evidence of the life that once inhabited his body.

Lopez then displays a tray full of plasticized kidneys and a brain, along with the interior of a human lung, which looks more like part of a coral reef than part of a human body. It is quite stunning, even awe-inspiring.

One of his favorite aspects of his job is the “wow moment” that people experience when the product is finished and in their hands, Lopez says.

The process of plastination makes human anatomy much more accessible, not only to medical students, but also to the general public, says Lopez. Though controversy swirls around the origin of some of its specimens, the “Bodies: the Exhibition” show has helped bring anatomy to life for millions of people worldwide through its exhibit of plastinated organs, body parts, and entire bodies.  Lopez says he hopes the Plastination Science Laboratory at the University of Arizona will expand in the future.

“The hope of the department is to be able to do full body specimens.”