AFTER a wait of almost 170 years, it was perhaps unsurprising that Professor Gunther von Hagens delayed proceedings for a few more minutes before reaching for his scalpel.
The German doctor had been due to start cutting up a fellow countryman in Britain’s first public autopsy since 1830 at 7pm precisely.
Right up to the last minute, it was unclear if the anatomy lesson was going to go ahead; Prof von Hagens had been involved in a long-running battle with Dr Jeremy Metters, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy, over whether this peculiar form of entertainment was legal.
Then, at 7:28pm, on a stainless steel slab in front of a makeshift theatre and beneath a giant reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, the bizarre spectacle began. A crowd of 500 watched in awe and horror. They had paid 12 each for tickets.
Hundreds more had been locked out of at the Old Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane, situated next to Prof von Hagens’ Bodyworlds exhibition - a grisly collection of human remains immaculately preserved in aspic.
The body was wrapped in a white sheet and covered with a plastic bag. The German professor said he was a 70-year-old man who had died in March after smoking four packets of cigarettes a day and drinking two bottles of whisky. His name was not revealed.
"This is not for the faint-hearted," he said, unwrapping the sheet. Before us was the death-white, barrel-chested corpse of a grey-haired man.
"I am now starting the procedure of the post-mortem examination," said Professor von Hagens. With a scalpel he started with a "Y" cut, from the top of the chest to the base of the pelvis, then pulled back a piece of skin as thick as a carpet tile.
Inside, the body was not red and gory but yellow and grey. The man next to me went very green.
"What is that liquid dribbling from his ear?" asked one curious member of the audience. We were told it was the preservation solution.
"Now we are going to open the body cavities," said Professor von Hagens.
It was quite hideous, but the professor soldiered on. The rib cage was passed around the audience on a steel tray.
Then Professor Hagens produced his pice de rsistance, a massive hacksaw to cut open the skull. There was a collective wince from the audience.
With his two assistants, Professor von Hagens wrestled with the skull cap. If you learned nothing else, it was that doing a post-mortem is very physical work.
After a while, what was shocking became almost ordinary. Perhaps we have become too conditioned by the horrors of television.
At 8:20pm, Prof von Hagens announced a half-hour break and the audience was allowed into the well of the theatre for a closer look.
As crowds pressed closer to the body, which gave off a powerful stench, the professor and his assistants were happy to point out features close-up.
Asked why she had come, Louise Cotton, 40, an accountant, said: "I think it’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve never seen anything like it before, it’s just amazing. Although it looks real it doesn’t seem real. I’ve been to Bodyworld so I knew something about the organs but it’s just so different close-up."
As members of the audience filed past the body, many covered their mouths and noses.
A medical student, Cristina Koppel, said: "This used to be public, it used to be normal. I had to be here. I think he has changed the attitude of the whole thing, it’s not a show any more, it’s informative. He’s made it less sensational, less of a performance."
Dr Metters had disagreed and given warning that the procedure would not only be in extremely poor taste but would be "a criminal offence under the Anatomy Act" as neither Prof von Hagens nor the venue had post-mortem licences. The police had been asked to take "appropriate action".
Prof von Hagens insisted he was prepared to go to jail for the right to dissect the body in front of a paying public.
Among the many last-minute snags to upset the professor’s plans was an unsavoury row over the body to be used. Originally the corpse of a 33-year-old German woman who suffered from epilepsy was to have been dissected. Following protests by Epilepsy Bereaved, a charity which works to prevent epilepsy deaths, the professor agreed to substitute the body.
Before the event, Prof von Hagens, dressed in a funereal black hat said he had a "sound" legal basis for performing the examination. "This event cannot be censored," he declared. "We are here in a democratic country and I stand for the democratisation of anatomy and I will fight for it," he said.
According to the professor, the public are asked every day in this country to consent to an autopsy. "How can they do so when they are excluded from seeing what it is? The medical elite shouldn’t have exclusive rights to view this kind of procedure," he said.
Public autopsies were once common in Britain and mainland Europe. The practice was eventually banned in the UK in 1832 when the Anatomy Act, partly introduced in response to outrage over the Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, forbade rogue surgeons from taking unwanted bodies from doss-houses for dissection.
Present rules, under the updated 1984 Anatomy Act, stipulate autopsies must be conducted with "care and respect".
TASTE: POWER TO SHOCK
PROFESSOR Gunther von Hagens is not first person to have pushed the boundaries between art and science.
Rembrandt’s 1632 masterpiece, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaas Tulp still retains the power to shock after nearly 400 years. Critics hailed the groundbreaking position of the characters and the use of light.
The painting is a major inspiration for Prof von Hagens. Not only is there a copy of the picture at the entrance to the Bodyworlds exhibition, but he has taken to wearing a hat similar to the one worn by Dr Tulp.
In 1998 the sculptor Anthony-Noel Kelly was jailed under the Anatomy Act for stealing body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons. Kelly, a nephew of the Duke of Norfolk, was prosecuted after HM Inspector of Anatomy read about his work in a newspaper.
The inspectorate post was created by the 1832 Anatomy Act, brought into law after outrage at the case of Burke and Hare, who sold bodies to anatomy students in 19th century Edinburgh.
Other artists have chosen to examine contemporary attitudes to death by using animal rather than human parts. Damien Hirst came to public recognition for his pickling of dissected farm animals in formaldehyde. In the ground-breaking Sensation exhibition of young British artists, Hirst exhibited a work showing thousands of flies feeding off a rotting cow’s head in a pool of blood within a glass case.
Sensation also included Marc Quinn’s Self, a sculpture of his head made from his own frozen blood. The work was one of the advertising millionaire and art collector Charles Saatchi’s prized pieces, but came to a sticky end when workers at his house accidentally unplugged the freezer in which it was kept.