What lies beneath

The Museum of the Human Body lets the public get a close look at the internal workings of our anatomy

The room is chilly. Dead bodies are everywhere. People walk around looking at the cadavers with wide eyes of astonishment. Organ parts, some sliced, some whole, are all over the place.

"I am not scared," said Jutima Nopuijit, a first-year biology student at Chulalongkorn University. "At first I did not dare come to this place. But when I see human bodies and those organs with my own eyes, they are impressive."

This was Jutima's first visit to the Museum of the Human Body, located at her university. Opened last month, the museum in the Faculty of Dentistry's compound features preserved whole human bodies, unborn babies, sliced body parts, internal organs and blood vessels.

The faculty's associate dean Asst Prof Dr Atiphan Pimkhaokham said the museum was established when the faculty last year received a donation of preserved bodies and body parts from Katsumi Kitamura, president of Medical Doctor Soft House.

The Japanese firm has been setting up human body exhibitions throughout Japan for many years. The donation was coordinated by Professor Kazuhiro Eto, the former dean of Tokyo Medical and Dental University's Faculty of Dentistry.

"Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Dentistry has maintained a long and friendly relationship with Tokyo Medical and Dental University. The two universities have had academic collaborations and have done several projects and research together," explained Atiphan. "This whole set of preserved human bodies had actually been exhibited in Japan for eight years. After the company had a new set, they donated one to us mainly for academic purposes."

The entire set of human bodies and body parts is worth over 100 million baht and was transported to Thailand last year. Japanese experts helped with the set-up, including body posture and arrangement, tagging and preservation.

All the human bodies and body parts on display have undergone plastination.

Invented in 1977 by Polish anatomist Gunther von Hagens, plastination replaces water and fat inside tissues of dead human beings or animals with certain types of plastic, be they silicone, epoxy resin or polyester copolymer. The process is time-consuming. Preparing a technically correct whole-body plastination requires between 1,000 and 1,500 hours, or up to nine weeks.

The plastinated bodies and body parts at the Museum of the Human Body at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Dentistry are the first in Southeast Asia.

But the scientific invention has also raised questions among those working in medical fields. The most important is whether plastinated human bodies could replace untreated cadavers in medical studies.

The answer to that question is no, said Atiphan. Cadavers used in medical study and plastinated human bodies actually serve different functions, he explained.

While cadavers are used in class by medical students, exhibited plastinated figures provide an opportunity for the general public to gain knowledge about anatomy without them having to enroll in medical school.

''Plastinated figures allow visitors to see human body parts and learn more about them without being restricted by academic terms. And above all, these plastinated body parts do not smell or decay. And they can stay like this forever. They are everlasting educational tools,'' the museum manager said.

The museum is divided into two rooms showcasing 13 whole bodies and more than 100 body parts. Visitors are not allowed to photograph or touch any of the exhibited items. The only item visitors can touch, lift and feel the weight of is a brain.

The display is elaborately arranged into sections in accordance with the body's organ systems. This gives the viewer an almost inside-out look at the nervous, circulatory, gastrointestinal, male reproductive and respiratory systems, to name a few.

Smokers will be able to see what their lungs look like and they can compare theirs with healthy lungs.

The highlight is a series of slices of a whole body which allows visitors to see inside, layer by layer, how the systems fit together.

Atiphan said the plastination set on display was one of only 11 in the world. And the museum has drawn considerable attention and received incredibly positive feedback from visitors.

On an average day, Atiphan noted, there can be 1,500 visitors during the museum's six opening hours.

''Our visitors are not just students who are interested in learning about human anatomy,'' he remarked. ''We also have physiotherapists, doctors or even artists and the general public.''

Jutharat Vongnarisit learned about the museum through a television commercial and she and her family decided to pay the place a visit. The 55-year-old said it did not disappoint.

''Seeing thoroughly inside human bodies, I think a lot of people would come to think of the importance of their health,'' said Jutharat, a traditional Thai chiropractor who also teaches.

''People these days forget to look after themselves. They spend too much time working and doing things that are actually bad for their health.

''So after people come to this museum and see for themselves the body parts of the healthy and the unhealthy, at least I hope that they will go back home with the feeling that they need to love themselves more and also care more for their health.

''So this museum is apparently not just for medical students. I think it is a place for everyone.''

FROM PLASMA TO PLASTIC

Plastination is a technique to preserve bodies and body parts by replacing water and fat with certain types of plastics. The result is preserved body organs that can be touched, do not smell or decay and retain most of the original sample's characteristics.

Plastination involves four stages.

1.Fixation

Stabilisation of the dead bodies by using formaldehyde-based solution helps prevent the decomposition of tissues. This step involves formalin solution being injected into the body.

2.Dehydration

The specimen is then placed in a bath of a liquid chemical called acetone. Under freezing conditions, acetone draws out all water from the body and replaces it inside the cells.

3.Plastination

The specimen is then placed in a bath of liquid polymer such as silicone rubber, polyester or epoxy resin. During this stage, acetone is removed from tissues while silicone enters the tissues.

4.Solidification

Plastic body parts are chemically cured with gas, heat or UV light and with this, they become hardened.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Arusa Pisuthipan
Position: Muse Editor