By Erin Gannon Special to Published Jan 18, 2008 at 5:10 AM

We have all been there. We have sat through the required health class that covers the deteriorating effects of poor lifestyle decisions on our body. We were exposed to pictures and statistics related to diseases and the potential effects of obesity, smoking, drinking, and unprotected sex.

The saying, "I'll believe it when I see it" rings true for many of us in terms of our physical health -- or lack of it -- and since it's not convenient to look at our insides, we're apt to ignore warnings about what is going on under our skin when we wreak havoc on our knees or eat a steady diet of greasy foods.

"Body Worlds, The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies," which opens today at the Milwaukee Public Museum, may change that. Whole organs, bodies and cross sections of each are on display in a way that is meant to inform, engage, and inspire visitors.

"Body Worlds" has toured internationally since 1995, reaching an audience of 25 million people. There are three different traveling exhibitions and one permanent display in Guben, Germany, which grants visitors a behind the scenes look at the plastination process.

Dr. Angelina Whalley, licensed physician and creative and conceptual designer for "Body Worlds," merges art and science with careful attention to the aesthetic quality of the body and its functions, and a conscious effort to make the scientific explanations tangible to the average person.

Whalley says that originally she hoped to work with patients on a one-on-one basis, but since her involvement with "Body Worlds" she has been able to reach millions of people and practice medicine on a preventative level.

"(Body Worlds) shows the wonderful and intricate design of the human body," says Whalley. "The body is so fragile and vulnerable, and yet so forgiving and resilient. What we do to our bodies matters."

A healthy knee is displayed next to one plagued by arthritis. A healthy set of lungs is set in contrast to the blackened lungs of a smoker. And the opportunity to see a hemorrhage in a brain after a stroke, artificial joints imbedded in a hip and a liver with cirrhosis from processing too much alcohol, brings health consciousness to the fore in a way ninth grade health class never could.

The first exhibit of its kind, "Body Worlds" utilizes real, preserved human bodies as teaching tools to bring anatomy and physiology beyond the medical world and into the hands of the public. The bodies are preserved through a process called plastination, invented in 1977 by German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens at the Anatomical Institute of the University of Heidelberg.

In layman's terms plastination prevents bodies from decomposing by removing fluids and fat, and injecting specially formulated plastics that harden, or preserve, the organs, blood vessels, and tissues in a dry, odorless and natural-looking state.

Museum President Dan Finely says, "'Body Worlds" is without a doubt the most stunning exhibition we have ever had."

"Body Worlds" comprises more than 200 organs and organ systems, and 20 whole bodies, called plastinates. The exhibit is organized by the body's systems -- skeletal, cardiovascular, digestive and so on. Each system provides an intimate look at organs, healthy and diseased, and whole body displays demonstrate how the organs function together.

The line between life and death is blurred as whole body plastinates are displayed in a vivid way that resonates with living, human behavior. We see a basketball player, dancer, chess player, runner and a figure skating couple and others.

Human and animal dissection has been a topic of heated controversy, and "Body Worlds" has not dodged the issue. Concerns about informed consent and the source of the bodies on display, as well as arguments from religious groups that the bodies have been desecrated have followed "Body Worlds" around the world.

However, Whalley maintains that all plastinates and specimens in the exhibit are from highly informed donors who expressed an interest in the "Body Worlds" mission and gave consent. Potential donors are given brochures, information books and are invited to donor meetings without the binding obligation of a contract. To date, "Body Worlds" has about 8,000 donors, living and deceased.


Erin Gannon Special to
Originally from Michigan, Erin made her move to Milwaukee shortly after graduating from St. Norbert College in May 2007 with a degree in English. Erin tapped into her writing skills as an intern for the college magazine and is excited about the opportunity to combine exploring her new home and a love of writing with When she isn't writing at one of Milwaukee's many coffee shops, Erin can be found reading, running - she's obsessed - or trying to learn guitar. Searching for the best margarita in town is pretty high on the list of hobbies, too.