When is a room full of dead bodies not a morgue? When it’s a laboratory.
Dr. Ameed Raoof, the director of the University’s plastination lab, spends a lot of his time in just such a place.
The lab, the biggest of its kind in the country, holds about 400 plastinated human body parts. Plastination, the preservation of body parts in plastic, was plagued with controversy and outrage from its invention in 1977. People inside and outside the scientific community raised moral questions when the inventor of the method put hundreds of real human bodies on public display in the wildly popular museum exhibit “Body Worlds.” But scientists have since adapted the technique to suit less voyeuristic applications. At the University, medical and dental students study the bodies to better learn anatomy.
Raoof – who keeps a cross section of a brain by his desk that was plastinated by Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of the process – has been asked to speak at the Detroit Science Center, where the exhibit “Our Body: The Universe Within” opened recently. He politely declined, dedicating his time to using plastinated bodies purely for education instead.
Here are his takes on the controversy, the University’s lab and the future of his own body:
The first time I saw a plastinated cadaver was in 1987. Our lab got these two specimens that I really liked. I thought of it as a very useful tool for teaching anatomy.
Originally, I’m from Iraq. My siblings are all over the place: Libya, Abu Dhabi, Warsaw. That’s the way, I think, that most Iraqi families are now.
Plastination starts with the idea that if you want to preserve a piece of tissue, even during the times of Egyptians, you take all the water out. There have been different methods, they use chemicals now – Acetone. After using that, we put the specimen in a pressurized silicone chamber. The acetone bubbles out and then your tissue is ready to dry.
You dissect as you need to. You clean the tissue, of course; you bleach it to remove any stains or clots. You can dissect afterwards, but initially when the tissue’s still soft, it’s much better.
The controversy is there. It started a long time ago actually. Von Haggens himself started using these cadavers for exhibition. The question initially was where the cadavers came from and whether people actually consented to having their bodies exhibited.
(Donating my own body) is not only my decision, it’s related to my family as well. But the idea is a good idea. Why not?
I had a ticket to (“Our Body; the Universe Within”), but I gave it to our secretary. I see a lot of plastinated cadavers.
The cadavers are the students’ first patients. As such, they are treated with immense respect. Over the decades, we’ve been able to build a trusting relationship with donors.
– As told to Anne VanderMey