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Public Autopsy Held in Britain

November 20, 2002

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LONDON (AP) _ A German doctor conducted Britain’s first public autopsy in more than 170 years on Wednesday night, ignoring a government warning that he would face criminal penalties.

Professor Gunther von Hagens began the post mortem in front of a paying audience of 500 people in an art gallery in London’s East End. It included anatomy professors who were asked to attend by Scotland Yard after a government inspector warned the autopsy could be illegal.

Scotland Yard had refused to say whether it would stop the autopsy before a crowd and a TV camera crew at the gallery where von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibition of preserved human corpses has created a sensation.

The professor insisted he had a sound legal basis for performing the examination before the sellout crowd.

Moments before starting the dissection, the professor, assisted by a German doctor and an English doctor, said he regarded his audience as ``newcomers″ to the science of anatomy.

One of his assistants identified the body as that of a 72-year-old German man. ``There was nothing exceptional in his life. He was a businessman, an employee, who lost his job at the age of 50. At that time he started drinking,″ the assistant said.

The man drank up to two bottles of whiskey a day and was a heavy smoker for the last 50 years of his life, the assistant said.

Moments later, the professor, wearing a blue surgical gown, made the first incision into the man’s preserved corpse.

In an age when forensic pathology features prominently in crime novels and in television dramas such as the American ``CSI: Crime Scene Investigation″ and Britain’s ``Silent Witness,″ von Hagens said he wanted to bring medical knowledge to a wider audience.

``There is huge demand among the public to see what an autopsy entails, especially in light of the fact that this procedure can be ordered on them or their loved ones without their consent according to British law,″ he said.

But the government said there is a time and a place for autopsies, and the exhibition center in Brick Lane before a public crowd was not it.

Dr. Jeremy Metters, the official Inspector of Anatomy, had said that the procedure is illegal under the 1984 Anatomy Act because neither von Hagens nor the venue had post mortem licenses.

Metters said he wrote to von Hagens warning that he faces ``criminal penalties″ and that police were asked to take ``appropriate action.″

Von Hagens denied he was breaking any laws and said he had a ``briefcase full of books″ to support his case.

The inspector’s attitude, he said, ``reminds me of the times when clergymen reserved the right to read the Bible.″

The 500 people paid $19 each for tickets to the autopsy, which was shown on giant screens inside an art gallery. During the procedure, the organs were to be passed around the audience in trays.

Von Hagens changed earlier plans to carry out the examination on the body of a 33-year-old woman who had suffered from epilepsy _ reportedly because of opposition from epilepsy groups.

The professor said the family of the German man had consented to the procedure.

Public autopsies became popular across Europe from the 16th century, after the Roman Catholic Church gave permission for surgeons to dissect bodies to help understand the miracle of God’s creation.

Leonardo da Vinci acknowledged that he dissected more than 30 corpses stolen from graves and gibbets for his anatomical drawings.

Public autopsies were banned in Britain in 1832 to stop unscrupulous surgeons taking unclaimed bodies from workhouses for dissection. The 1984 Anatomy Act upholds those laws.

Dr. Roger Soames, of the British Association of Professional Anatomists, said taking a post mortem out of licensed premises and into a public place raised ethical and moral issues.

``I can understand why some people would want to go,″ he said. ``There would be a certain curiosity because most of the public are fascinated by the way their body works.″

``I just think the way Professor von Hagens is going about this issue is the wrong way,″ Soames added. ``There is a need for a debate on giving the public access to learning more about their own bodies. I’m not sure if this is the way to do it.″

Channel 4, which planned to broadcast an edited version of the autopsy, said it wanted to ``demystify the taboos″ that surround death.

``It is something that we must all face, yet death has been removed from our normal experience to be managed by professionals,″ said Simon Andreae, the broadcaster’s head of science and education.

The Body Worlds art show, which toured other European countries and Japan, was attacked by two protesters shortly after it opened in London.

Martin Wynness paid the $14 entrance fee, then tossed paint across the floor and threw a blanket over the corpse of a pregnant woman, saying he could not bear to look at the 7-month fetus in the womb of its mother. Wynness was not charged for his action.

Geoffrey Lee was charged by police with criminal damage after he attacked one of the corpses with a hammer.

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