London's 'Cadaver' A Reality Show Low?

German Professor Gunther von Hagens performs a controversial public autopsy on the body of a 72-year-old man in London Wednesday, Nov 20, 2002.
AP
In a gruesome spectacle reminiscent of the pre-Victorian past, a German doctor defied threats of prosecution Wednesday night and conducted a public autopsy in an art gallery, charging spectators $19 a head.

Compounding the controversy over the first public autopsy in Britain in 170 years, a TV network said it would broadcast edited footage.

Professor Gunther von Hagens began the post-mortem in front of 500 people in London's East End, a district whose tourist attractions include the Tower of London and Jack the Ripper walks. In the audience were anatomy professors who were asked by Scotland Yard to attend after a government inspector warned the autopsy could be illegal.

As CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth reports, this was so far from "Survivor", they could've called it "Cadaver."

Going where Quincy the TV medical examiner didn't dare, German pathologist von Hagen performed an autopsy on the body of a 72-year old man -- with a live London audience watching, and Britain's channel four put it on TV.

Police, who'd hinted they might stop the show, stood on the sidelines. And Von Hagen, who says he's promoting science and fighting censorship had plenty of public support.

An exhibit of corpses that von Hagen preserved in plastic has been running for months here with some controversy and huge crowds.

But critics dismissed tonight's show as a public display of dissection - without merit.

"To go to an event like this seems to be appealing to a more voyeuristic or - titillatory - aspect of human psychology," psychiatrist Raj Persaud tells Roth

An autopsy with an audience may be a first for its time slot but it's hardly a first for all time. The fact is, public autopsies have been fascinating the media for centuries.

For Rembrandt almost 400 years ago, the medium was oil paint and for American artist Thomas Eakins, too, in the 1800s.

Now the medium's different, but maybe the message isn't.

Call it science or art or showmanship there's profit to be made satisfying public curiosity. And the post mortem that really counts maybe be the one expressed in numbers: the ratings.

Scotland Yard had refused to say whether it would stop the autopsy before a crowd and a TV camera crew at the exhibition center in Brick Lane where von Hagens has created a sensation with his Body Worlds exhibition of preserved human corpses, some dismembered or cut open.

The professor insisted he had the permission of the deceased's family and a sound legal basis for performing the autopsy before the sellout crowd.

Moments before starting the dissection with a German and an English doctor assisting, von Hagens said he regarded his audience as "newcomers" to the science of anatomy.

One of his assistants identified the hairy, potbellied 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 then drank up to two bottles of whiskey a day and was a heavy smoker for the rest of his life, the assistant said.

Moments later, von Hagens, wearing a black fedora and a blue surgical gown, took his scalpel to the naked preserved corpse. He sliced across his chest with one stroke, then down from his chest to his stomach, and pulled back the flap of chest with both hands.

The autopsy was shown on giant screens inside the gallery. During the procedure, the organs were to be passed around the audience in trays.

After it was over, some people in the crowd said they liked what they saw.

"It think it's absolutely fascinating. I've never seen anything like it before," said accountant Louise Cotton, 40.

Medical student Cristina Koppel, who already had seen autopsies at Imperial College in London, praised von Hagens for being professional. "It wasn't a show, it was informative," she said.

In an age when forensic pathology features prominently in TV 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 Body Worlds exhibition has twice been attacked by protesters. Martin Wynness 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. Wynness was not charged.

Geoffrey Lee was charged by police with criminal damage after attacking a corpse on display with a hammer.

The government said there was a time and a place for autopsies, and this was not it.

Dr. Jeremy Metters, the official Inspector of Anatomy, said it was 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 faced 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."

Von Hagens changed earlier plans to carry out the examination on the body of a 33-year-old woman was epileptic — reportedly because of opposition from epilepsy groups.

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 creation.

They were banned in Britain in 1832, five years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, to stop unscrupulous surgeons taking unclaimed bodies from workhouses for dissection.

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 issues.

He said people's curiosity was understandable, "because most of the public are fascinated by the way their body works."

But "I'm not sure if this is the way to do it," he said.

Britain's Channel 4 said it would broadcast the event 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 show has toured other European countries and Japan.