Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 20th 2013 Contents B44
body & soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Thursday, June 20, 2013
An embalming technique pioneered
in Austria that produces near life-like
cadavers for medical use is set to
improve surgical skills and accelerate
the adoption of new surgical tech-
niques and technology.
Using a process developed over sev-
eral decades, the so-called Thiel soft-
fix embalming method retains the
body s natural look and feel.
Skin and muscles remain flexible,
allowing the limbs to be moved, while
the body s internal organs are clearly
identifiable and respond to the surgeon s
scalpel as if alive.
Conventional methods of preserva-
tion using formaldehyde leave the body
stiff and fragile, and complicate the
understanding of how the body will
respond to a particular surgical pro-
Like any practical skill, practice is
crucial to learning surgery.
Enabling surgeons to try out a tech-
nique on a dead body before operating
on a live patient allows surgeons to
understand anatomy, minimise potential
damage and rehearse the procedure
before trying it for real.
"The benefits for surgeons are
absolutely massive," says Sue Black,
head of the Centre for Anatomy and
Human Identification at Dundee Uni-
versity, which recently brought the
Thiel technique to the UK.
"There is no doubt surgical skill-sets
are incredibly enhanced, while it also
allows for innovation," she says.
Prof Black says patients will benefit
from the more rapid adoption of new
surgical products and methods.
Until 2006 it was illegal in the UK
to practise surgery on cadavers. This
meant that surgeons had to practise
their skills on synthetic models or the
carcasses of animals such as cats, dogs,
rabbits and pigs.
Frozen body parts were also used,
but they carry a high risk of infection
and disintegrate in a day or two.
Prior to 2006, cadavers could be
used for dissection but not practising
surgery, out of respect for the deceased.
Using animals is never ideal as their
anatomy is not always a good match
for the human body. Similarly, bodies
preserved using formaldehyde, a toxic
solution, are never as good as the real
"A formaldehyde-preserved body is
not like a real body," says Dr Lena Vogt,
a foot surgeon from Germany.
"It starts with the skin. You just
touch it lightly with the scalpel and it
She says that the bodies lack colour
and the layers of tissue stick together
making it "difficult to decide if (it) is
a nerve, an artery or a vein."
Typically, a break is needed every 20
minutes to escape the fumes.
The ones from the Austrian institute
which pioneered the technique are far
superior, she says.
"They look more like in the operating
room. It is close to reality. You have
the opportunity to understand the body
much better; that helps you do surgery
much better. Surgery is all about prac-
Up until the late 19th century, bodies
had been preserved using arsenic, a
very toxic poison.
This was replaced with formaldehyde
after its discovery in 1867 by German
chemist August Wilhem von Hofman.
However, it too is highly toxic and
carcinogenic. Its use is restricted in
many countries and discouraged by a
2007 EU ruling.
In the early 1960s, an anatomist called
Walter Thiel, who was head of the Graz
Anatomy Institute in southern Austria,
began to look for an alternative.
His starting point was his local
butcher s shop where he noticed that
local "wet cured" ham preserved in a
solution of salts had a superior texture
to the formaldehyde-preserved flesh
in his lab.
It took 30 years to perfect, starting
with prime cuts of beef, more similar
to human flesh than pork according to
Thiel, before progressing to whole
In all it took at least 1,000 donated
bodies to get it right, says Friedrich
Anderhuber, the late Prof Thiel s protégé
and successor as head of the institute.
It was a lengthy matter of trial and
error. A body would be injected with
a preserving fluid and then soaked in
the liquid for two years.
It was a matter of finding the right
compromise between preserving of one
part of the body and another, says
"If you feel a muscle or a liver of a
cadaver, it must feel like a muscle or
a liver," says Anderhuber. The joints
and tendons must also move like those
of a living body he says, so surgeons
can understand how they work.
Thiel eventually settled on a colour-
less and almost odourless solution of
salts, antiseptic boric acid, ethylene
glycol, an antifreeze, and a very low
level of formaldehyde.
It is so effective in killing bacteria
and fungi that it is safe to dissect the
body without gloves and the cadavers
can be kept at room temperature.
In the basement of the Graz anatomy
institute a dozen bodies lying like sar-
dines on a metal rack hauled up from
a preservation tank in the cellar are
Numbered plastic tags are attached
to their thumbs, toes and earlobes, so
they can be brought together for bur-
ial.These have been in their tanks for
a year. Once the soaking process is
complete, they are transferred into plas-
tic bags, the subsequent loss of fluid
making the flesh more elastic and life-
Altogether the basement houses
around 250 bodies at any one time;
around a year s supply for the insti-
In the next room, six newly arrived
corpses lie on stainless steel tables. An
assistant is shaving one because the
hair would turn to slime in the preser-
The bodies of two elderly men and
one woman are mid-preparation, heads
propped on sections of blue plastic
These are jaundiced and slightly
swollen from the fluid being fed into
New embalming method aids surgical training
blood vessels in the neck and skull.
Each needs around 20 litres (five
gallons) of preserving fluid, says Dr
Anderhuber. Later, red dye is injected
to give the blood vessels and flesh a
Fifty years since Dr Thiel s first
experiments with pieces of steak his
method is slowly catching on else-
According to Dr Anderhuber there
is also interest in learning the method
from Australia, Canada, the Czech
Republic, Ghana, Spain, Switzerland
and West India.
Prof Black s centre in Dundee, the
first place to adopt Thiel embalming
in the UK, recently used its last
formaldehyde-preserved cadaver and
will use only Thiel bodies from now
on.It has eleven tanks which can sub-
merge 44 bodies at any one time and
rack space for around 100.
The apparently ghoulish art of pre-
serving the dead can help transform
surgery to improve and prolong life.
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'The benefits for surgeons are absolutely massive,'
there is no doubt surgical skill-sets are incredibly
enhanced, while it also allows for innovation.'
---Sue Black, head of the Centre for Anatomy and Human
Identification at Dundee University, which recently brought the
Thiel technique to the UK.
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