Life at the border between human bodies and objects.

Phinneas Gage's skull and tamping iron both appear in the Warren Anatomical Museum's 1870 catalog. See no. 949 for the skull and an account of Gage's injury. See no. 3106 for the tamping iron.

Dr. Gunther Von Hagens's essay "On Gruesome Corpses, Gestalt Plastinates and Mandatory interrment" is fascinating reading.

Music featured in this episode:

"Simpson's Gap," performed by Brooklyn Rider and composed by Padma Newsome

"Pretzel Drunk," by Beverly Tender


One afternoon in 1848, in Vermont, a railroad crew set about clearing rock from the site of a new train track. As usual, the foreman drilled a hole in the rock. As usual he filled the hole with blasting powder. As usual he packed in the powder with his tamping iron, a three-foot-seven-inch metal rod with a blunt foot and a pointed top. But when he thumped the bar down inside the hole, something unusual happened. Maybe the bar struck a spark from the rock. The powder exploded prematurely, and the force of the explosion shot the bar’s pointed end upward into the man’s cheek and out the top of his head. The bar landed eighty feet away, point first, “and was picked up smeared with blood and brain.”

Somehow, the man survived, and greeted the local doctor with a wry one-liner: “Here’s business enough for you,” he said, and tilted his head forward to show the hole.

The man’s name was Phinneas Gage. Doctor after doctor examined him, noting changes the injury seemed to have wrought on Gage’s character. Accounts of these changes vary. It’s generally accepted that he seemed newly forgetful. Some say the formerly mild Gage also began to swear uncontrollably.

Gage made his way from doctor to doctor to Harvard, where he became a literal textbook case, setting up a course of inquiry that would lead to modern scientific cerebral localization, the idea that different parts of our brains do different things. During his time at Harvard, Gage donated the fateful bar to the collection of Harvard’s Warren Anatomical Museum, where someone inscribed it with the words:

Dominic Hall: "This is the bar that was shot through the head of Mr. Phinehas P. Gage at Cavendish, Vermont, September 14, 1848. He fully recovered from the injury and deposited this bar in the museum of the medical college of Harvard University."

That’s Dominic Hall, Curator of the Warren, where the bar still resides. Dominic told me that soon after donating this bar, Gage actually returned for it. Gage couldn't work on the railway anymore, so decided he'd take his bar and go on tour, making money by exhibiting himself alongside it. He called it his "constant companion." After Gage died in 1860, at thirty-six years old, Gage’s doctor persuaded his mother to exhume her son’s skull and donate it to Harvard along with the bar. Today the skull and the bar sit together at the Warren Anatomical Museum.

PG: Can you describe what we’re looking at?

DH: Sure. So, it’s Phinneas Gage’s skull in two pieces.

The top’s been sliced off to show the inside.

DH: That gives you the best impression of all the interior destruction that happened when the tamping iron passed behind his left eye.

In short, the damage that makes Gage’s skull a remarkable scientific specimen. But although Gage’s skull remains a scientific specimen, it’s hard to look at the skull without imagining person, the guy who returned to this museum and said, “Hey, give me back my bar.”

DH: People know him by name. Which is really rare for an individual in an anatomical museum.

PG: Wow, yeah. So, so you're aware of people coming here to see the specimen.

DH: Yes. I mean I have conversations with people in the gallery about Phineas Gage probably weekly. Everybody comes to see Phineas Gage.

PG: Who's everybody?

DH: Middle school students through senior citizens. People internationally come to see Phinneas Gage. I mean, he’s so fixed in the sort of psychological and neurological literature that when people come to Harvard Medical School for other things, maybe conferences, they’ll stop by, just to see Gage.

More so than most anatomical specimens, Phinneas Gage’s skull indicates the porousness of the border between person and thing. It’s possible to look at Gage’s skull beside his bar and read both as objects. Gage himself is gone. But he’s also right here. Dominic showed me his visitors' book.

DH: "Son read about P. Gage in school, loved bumping into him here." "So amazing, very impressed by the collections, especially for Gage's skull." "Great to see Phineas Gage in real life." Parentheses, “death.”

Today, most people who encounter anatomical specimens do so through Body Worlds. For those not familiar with Body Worlds, it’s a series of traveling exhibitions that feature real human bodies on display. Each body has been plastinated, a process whereby technicians replace all perishable fluids with silicone, transforming corpses into nearly indestructible lessons in human anatomy. The inventor of this process, Dr. Gunther Von Hagens, produces these specimens in a German laboratory that sits just across the river from Poland.

A few years ago, Zhengyu got a job there, and got a closer look than most at the line between objects and us.

I should say here that he didn’t have any reservations going into the job. He just thought it sounded high-tech and glamorous.

Zhengyu Ren: I was really excited because it was going to be in Germany. It was going to be really, you know—the flights were all sponsored, and I would have really new experiences in a new country.

The company would pay well, split his salary between euros and Chinese yuan. They’d even provide housing.

ZR: The first day, I was quickly shown around. There’s a permanent setup of all the exhibits on the first floor of the main building of the facility, which is called Plastinarium. And I went through there.

He saw a man, all muscles and bones, holding aloft the slack suit of his skin. He saw a cloud of tiny red veins in the shape of a woman. Confronted with these images, Zhengyu wondered for the first time what he’d got himself into.

ZR: So they showed me my office. They also showed me the room they arranged for me inside the facility.

They’d offered him housing but this was the first he’d heard about living onsite. He was horrified.

ZR: I would have said no, I didn’t want to.

But now that he was here, he didn’t have much choice.

ZR: It was such a small town, so, it was nothing called rent an apartment or anything. Nobody does that in the town. So another option would be the only one hotel in the town, but I guess they didn’t take that option for me. And then everyone went home. 

Sitting in his new bedroom, Zhengyu realized with a sense of dread that he’d left his luggage in his office. He went to get it.

ZR: But the facility was so big, and I was totally lost. The first trip from my room to the office was really terrifying. Cause I had to go through totally dark places. All that I saw was a very dim light on the wall. I assumed it was the switch.

He flipped the switch. The light came on. Right beside him stood a skeleton covered in a fur of red veins, glass eyeballs filling its sockets.

ZR: It was really terrifying.

PG: I can imagine. It’s sort of the stuff of horror movies.

ZR: It was, yeah.

The next morning they set him up with a very fast computer and had him fix errors in enormous HD images of organs. They’d hired him to work with photographers on converting real specimens into digital models, for a virtual exhibition. And despite his disgust, he just dealt with it.

ZR: I still remember the first time a photographer called me and asked if I could just bring specimen number blah blah, from that room to her studio. I said sure. I didn’t expect what exactly it was. It’s an arm, of a human. Literally an arm, right? And I never done that. I’ve never touched that. I remember, I had to call her. I said, yeah, I don’t think I can help you, and you probably have to come yourself or ask someone else. And then she just had to ask me, why, what happened? Because I just said, no, I just can’t. I can’t. I don’t know why, I just can’t do that. Yeah. I guess I was really, just really like a usual person. We all have this instinctive fear of death.

Unlike his new colleagues, Zhengyu hadn’t undergone a doctor’s transformation. He retained a civilian fear. Dr. Gunther Von Hagens, founder of Body Worlds, has written about this fear. He says it’s all about categories.

According to the doctor, the language of science maintains a fine but clear distinction between a body and a corpse. The word “corpse” describes a dead body we’re obliged to bury because it’ll soon decompose. But Von Hagens’s indestructible plastinated bodies are stable and dry. Contra the way of all flesh, these plastinated specimens will live—in the doctor’s words—for “didactic eternity, longer than the mummies and pharaohs of Egypt.” So these bodies aren’t “corpses” in any meaningful way, and thus are translated away from legal and moral obligations to mourn or fear.

Body Worlds’ own publicity materials write their project into the enlightened history of anatomy, the once-taboo scientific project that made medicine modern. In photos, even mid-surgery, Dr. Von Hagens never appears without a wide-brimmed black hat seemingly styled on that of the surgeon in Rembrandt’s 1631 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaas Tulp, an image in which a black-hatted doctor picks apart an arm for a group of students. It’s an icon of anatomy’s bold red frontier.

But all this rationalization is far easier said than done. Zhengyu spent his days among the dead terrified and lonely.

ZR: I didn’t know much about the town before I got there, and then my life began, and I realized that there were really not much going on. Every day and night, I was so bored. So I started looking into the demographic of that town. I started to learn about the company, and I was shocked when I saw how many actually corpses the company stored. How much more corpses than living people in the same small town.

One day a doctor from Canada arrived and Zhengyu finally made an English-speaking friend.

ZR: She was literally my only friend, so we were hanging out a lot. So this one day, she called me on my local phone, and asked me if I wanted to have lunch with her. I said, sure. And she said she was busy, in the middle of something, and she wanted to me wait for her in her office, a little bit. So I went to her office. And I got in and I felt very uncomfortable, because she was, um, dissecting a corpse? Specifically, skinning the skull. It was seriously horrifying. I had to tell her, like, al right, I’ll just wait for you from outside. She just didn’t seem to understand. A few days after that, she invited me to have dinner with her at her home. When I got there, she was cutting beef. It would be a very normal scene to see, but because I saw a few days before that she was using some knife, and cutting a human, like skinning the skull, I just felt really uncomfortable, I felt seriously disgust. I didn’t want to eat the beef that she cut. But I guess, I still did. After her first bite, I started to bite my beef as well.

Zhengyu had reached a border.

ZR: I realized that this is really not practical.

Among his colleagues, he was the only one who couldn’t touch the specimens, and he’d be working here for a long time.

ZR: And I knew I have to conquer this uncomfortness, or fear, or whatever that is.

More than most people, Zhengyu had had close contact with death. He’d seen his first dead body at twelve or thirteen.

ZR: In China, since 1990-something, incremation became compulsory. And the regulation included the corpses that had been buried ten years before the date became effective. It was so absurd. So what it meant was that my grandma was dug out and incremated. And nobody was paying for that. My dad, who was the oldest son of my grandma, had to do that. It was a really bad experience. My brother was not allowed to go. He was, I guess, for them, they believed that the kids shouldn’t go there, but because I was the oldest in my generation I just had to be there. So yeah. Only my dad, my uncles, and me. And my dad and my uncles went there and dug the casket out. I was there watching, this whole time. They opened the casket, and I saw the clothes, the clothes evaporated very soon. And they pour a bottle of liquor in there. And then my dad literally picked up every piece of bones of my grandma. And then we moved together and then incremated my grandma. But I remember, my dad was very calm. And I knew it. I knew that nobody can be that calm. But my dad had to be calm. Somebody had to do that, and my dad did it. And it was really impressive. There are always things that you have to do. Yes, there are things that must be done, so, yeah, just deal with it.

At Body Worlds, Zhengyu adopted a similar, pragmatic mindset. Just deal with it.

ZR: So I started to try. The first thing I tried was to go through the exhibits. The second step was touching some bones and skeletons, which I felt easier to begin with. And then later I started to touch the flesh, the skin, the skull, I tried the first time putting my fingers into the eyes. Later, I started to touch livers and stomach. The last thing was the brain.

PG: Why did you save the brain for last?

ZR: I don’t know, like, I just didn’t know what it would feel like to touch the brain. I thought it would break or something. Very fragile. And I didn’t want to have that slimy feeling. It was so weird, I remember when I touched the brain, I had to move it for the photographer. When I moved it, the first impression was, oh, this is much heavier than I thought. I assumed it would feel like water, like in that volume and weight but it would be maybe double the weight. So I touched the brain, then I told myself mission accomplished. After I worked there, for this time, I just, I don’t have that fear anymore. I can say that for now. I don’t have, really. I don’t have that fear. If I see a dead body, it’s fine. I don’t know where that fear has gone.

Dr. Von Hagens writes that on the far side of fear, there’s knowledge. His plastinates “[aid] in overcoming taboos that are hostile to the body. [They permit] us to satisfy our deep curiosity about our own persons and to open our hearts to ourselves. Our bodies can thus undergo a change in meaning: from a grisly unknown quantity to an intimate main attraction of creation.”

In Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, the students’ faces register the shock of this change. Perhaps it’s their first time. One student stares at the body, but the rest look either at a propped-open textbook, at the viewer, or at the doctor, whose expression is dispassionate behind his Van Dyke beard.

The body on the table, the body over which the students bend, is Aris Kindt, an armed robber hanged about an hour earlier. There’s a copy of the painting in the lobby of the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard, home of the Warren Anatomical Museum. The Warren is full of bodies, most of them from the 1800s. Generally speaking, these bodies were also not donated by their original owners.

DH: Conceptually, these medical museums exist in a pre-whole body gift era.

That’s Dominic Hall, Curator of the Warren, from the beginning of this story.

DH: There are very few states that even had laws sort of setting up the mechanism that would allow one to give their body to medical science.

Until the 20th Century, the general rule was, medical schools received unclaimed people who died in custody of the state. Relatives and friends had thirty-six hours to claim the body, after which period—

DH: Those individuals would be made available to medical schools for educational purposes.

With a pretty limited supply of corpses, medical schools inclined toward model-making. If you’ve got one body, you can let a few students learn from dissecting it, whereas countless students can learn from a model.

But in 1968, the Uniform Whole Body Gift Act set up an official mechanism whereby any living adult could donate his or her remains while still alive. According to Von Hagens’s writings, the German equivalent was a 1989 slash in death benefits, which caused a surge in donations that rendered unnecessary the century-old German law that sent unclaimed bodies to medical schools.

DH: You now have a community of people who are donating their bodies to medical schools for scientific dissection. And so that, too, changes a medical school’s relationship with the human body and with the cadaver.

Museums like the Warren began to shrink, since learning now took place right on the operating table.

DH: You no longer need these giant reference collections when you have this sort of tangible gift someone gave you right in front of you.

Today, anatomical specimens like Phinneas Gage’s skull no longer serve a central purpose of educating students. Gage’s skull in particular seems to have returned to a place where people read it as an individual rather than a medical text.

In the tradition of the Warren’s human specimens, Body Worlds’ specimens are for medical education, but they aren’t just for medical students. They’re also for us, for people like Zhengyu and me, who generally wouldn’t have reason to study human landscapes in such detail. They’re a sort of public anatomy lesson, and as such they’re very carefully considered.

ZR: I guess because the blood is all taken, all drained out, they look really, really pale. It looks fake, so they have to paint it, to make it like real flesh.

This is the paradox of Body Worlds. In order to create a specimen that’s legible to laypeople, the plastinator must mediate between the realities of human bodies and the visitors’ ideas about them.

Von Hagens writes that when he began plastinating, he didn’t think about aesthetics. He’d twist the leg to show the sole of a foot, or he’d crank the head backward to display the jaw. As a result, “the specimens either appeared rigid as lifeless manikins or they looked unnaturally distorted or even grotesque.”

So Von Hagens conceived of Body Worlds’ now-distinctive poses: a runner frozen at full tilt, a chess-player, a fencer. Von Hagens theorizes that rather than looking at these bodies with revulsion, visitors identify with the lifelike poses, such that the specimens’ authenticity doesn’t inspire horror, but rather, transparent learning.

Though by another token, don’t the poses also remind us that these bodies are more object than human? You don’t need to animate a living human. This laborious transparency goes deeper when you consider the plastinates’ creation.

ZR: One thing you want to know is that the full-body specimens you have seen at any exhibition didn’t belong to any one specific person. It’s a constructed person. So the liver might be from person A, and the finger might be from person B. So people will manually pick the organs off one by one, and then choose what organ they want to use. And then—people will just play Lego and put things together.

Maybe it’s an exchange. To show how human anatomy works, the plastinators create perfect bodies whose perfection kind of renders them less human than the imperfect individuals with which the project began. Body Worlds’ project of education requires a mindset that’s pragmatic and bluntly materialistic.

ZR: Because they have a clear idea what specimen they want to make, and what purpose that specimen serves. And then they choose that specific part to serve their purpose. I remember they were, like, picking a liver, a fat liver. And they have to pick through hundreds of livers and have found one that was really clear, and was very easy to show what fat liver means.

One day Zhengyu saw two livers that changed his life.

ZR: So the specimen was actually a comparison of two people. One is the normal body weight, average body weight, and the one was like obese.

At the time, Zhengyu was overweight.

ZR: I had read about the consequences of obesity and stuff, but the moment I saw the real specimen, I was really shocked. The two bodies were frozen, and then cut into slices horizontally. Into about 200 slices. And then, you can see the thickness of the fat, and how the fat is actually squeezing all your internal organs, and the organs got less and less spaces to function. You can see all that. The fat cells is accumulating around the liver. The liver is really suffering. All that, it’s very clear, visually. I was there, observing the specimen for so long. I really like the specimen. I think it was a really big lesson. I was like, you know, if you don’t really control this, you’re gonna die like that specimen.

PG: So it encouraged you to try to lose weight.

ZR: Yeah, yeah, cause I was thinking, really, if I don’t do something to fight against this obesity, I would die sooner. That’s for sure. I can see how a person would die sooner with so much fat, so much redundant fat. Yeah. Yeah. So I was like, no, I don’t want to die soon. I would say the whole experience is very positive.

In another room, he saw another specimen that changed him.

ZR: It small little room, and there was a sign that only adults are allowed to go into that section. And there was really just that one specimen in there.

He couldn’t say whether this change was positive.

ZR: When I got in there, I saw two people, one on the top, one on the bottom. And then the one on the top has a penis. And the penis was in the vagina. And to show everything, including the external and internal organs, the corpses were cut into two halves, vertically. So everything was cut into half, including the penis, the vagina. But it was very shocking. I felt really complicated. And I went back there another time, few days later. I had to really rationalize my experience a lot. I had to tell myself, this is really just to show me how it works, you know? If you feel anything, other things, just forget about any other things. You see this? This is knowledge. This is just about how human body parts work together. You know? Just, learn. But then I realized that, after that, every time I had sex, or seeing other naked, like, people, I just couldn’t get rid of that, that visual. Before I saw everything, sex meant one thing, but after I saw that, sex started to mean something very different. I don’t know how to say this. I can’t get rid of a certain level of rationalness when I have sex. I can’t get rid of that fully. If you don’t really know the internal structure and all that, I guess this is really not what you think when you have sex, like, sex means affection, you know, touch, I don’t know, everyone can describe it a different way. But, however you describe it, it’s not going to be how you see it in the Plastinarium. What made me feel comfortable is always that, this is not my unique experience. A lot of people are looking into that. Medical students have to go through all this. If I were the only person who been experiencing that, I would totally freak out.

PG: But you were a digital imaging guy. You weren’t necessarily up for this journey that you ended up going on. You know? Like, doctors know part of becoming a doctor is becoming—maybe callous is the wrong word.

ZR: I think the word callous is appropriate. I did feel that way. But I guess I don’t find it wrong to have callous. To have callouses? About anything. I guess, when we age, when we grow older, our skin is getting less sensitive. Everything is probably getting less and less sensitive. You don’t feel as sad. The things that usually hurt you when you were in your twenties probably wouldn’t hurt you as much when you were forty. Yeah. So I took it very positively. I don’t think it was a bad thing to become less sensitive to these shocking images, and to death.

Body Worlds’ project, the “change in meaning” from grisly to wondrous that Dr. Von Hagens describes, depends on the gift, this understanding that these people chose to become objects of study. In Body Worlds’ informational donor brochure, current donors give all kinds of reasons why. One decided at a young age that they didn’t want to be buried. Another cites the high costs of the funeral and the subsequent plot maintenance. Several like the idea of a second life of world travel once they’re gone. Many simply believe in the value of anatomy. Maybe it goes without saying that Dr. Von Hagens is a donor. I asked Zhengyu if he’d consider giving his own body.

ZR: Well, I would. I would, but I probably would add something. They can use any of my body parts, but I don’t want them to really forget about the parts they don’t use, and then put my liver into a big frigerator with all the unknown body parts. I just want them say, if you find my liver usable, use it, and then cremate the rest of my body. I would say.

Zhengyu was laid off during downsizing a few years ago. He said he misses the work.

ZR: I enjoyed working with those people a lot. I admired pretty much everyone, for how courageous and smart they are. I would be very happy to live there for several more years, I guess. I didn’t want to leave.

For the last few years, Dr. Von Hagens has lived in an apartment at the Plastinarium. Zhengyu lives in Phnom Penh, where he works as a translator.

Episode 6: The Plastinarium

April 4, 2016