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.
Scotland Yard had refused to say whether it would stop the autopsy at the exhibition center where von Hagens has created a sensation with his exhibition of preserved human corpses.
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.
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.
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.
"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," von Hagens said.
Dr. Jeremy Metters, the official inspector of anatomy, said the autopsy was illegal because neither von Hagens nor the venue had post-mortem licenses.