BODY WORLDS Creator, Anatomist Gunther von Hagens Reveals His Two Year Life-Changing Battle With Parkinson's Disease

Dec 29, 2010, 11:00 ET from BODY WORLDS

HEIDELBERG, Germany, Dec. 29, 2010 /PRNewswire/ -- Anatomist Gunther von Hagens revealed today, his two-year battle with Parkinson's Disease.

In a lengthy address to his employees at the Plastinarium in Guben, Dr. von Hagens disclosed for the first time, what his family and inner circle have known for two years—that the scientist who brought human health and anatomy into the public sphere with his BODY WORLDS exhibitions has been grappling with a degenerative disease. "This disease has led me to an existential bewilderment. According to my research the average duration of the disease and disability is about nine years. Since I was diagnosed two years ago, I can realistically expect seven active working years before I become totally incapacitated," he told the assembly.  

With his trademark candor, the 64 year-old former University of Heidelberg researcher described the deterioration that accompanies Parkinson's. "I can no longer hide the symptoms. My hands tremble, my language is vague, my movements are uncoordinated. Again and again I stumble around like a child. I have begun to take leave of skills I once had, knowing that they will never come back again.  I have struggled daily with the disabilities, the disease relentlessly pushed into consciousness.  As I hide, the symptoms do not abate, they are ruthlessly effective in a social context.  I am glad of the weekends when I am alone because I do not have to hide my symptoms, but can work around them," he said.

He also spoke of the effects of Deep Brain Stimulation surgery – the implantation of two electrodes in the brain -- that he underwent more than a year ago, to avoid the use of drugs that could lead to disorientation. "This medical advance has allowed me to function, and optimized my ability to perform daily tasks. When I turn up the power, my tremors cease, but my language degenerates into an unintelligible murmur. When I set the current low, I am able to speak almost normally, but I must sit on my trembling left hand or hide it in my trouser pocket," von Hagens said.

Anticipating a progressive degeneration, typical in Parkinson's Disease, that would impede his ability to lead and manage a large enterprise, von Hagens announced the scaling down of operations in Guben—the small town on the Polish/German border that he had hoped to position as the nexus of anatomical science and  his polymer technology of plastination. The retooled, lighter, faster plastination laboratories – with an emphasis on silicon technology and corrosion techniques – will allow the scientist to work on an accelerated timeline on his major scientific endeavors, before the crippling effects of his disease catch up with him. "Parkinson's has changed my life and compelled me to change the course of my life's work," he said.

Dr. von Hagens said that in addition to his work on the BODY WORLDS exhibitions, he plans to spend his remaining productive years developing a digital anatomical atlas, a contemporary version of Renaissance anatomist, Vesalius' Fabrica; testing, developing and filing patents for multiple anatomical technologies that he has considered over the last thirty years; and documenting his research and inventions.  "I would also like to create a new body of work reconciling human anatomy and art—a continuation of the work of the Renaissance anatomists that I am calling 'aesthetic anatomy,' for exhibitions destined for art museums," he said.