HARROGATE, Tenn. — When Dr. Paul Nader and Dr. Bob Henry were contacted to work on preserving the world’s largest heart from a 76.5-foot blue whale, they knew this would be no ordinary whale tale.
The Lincoln Memorial University-College of Veterinary Medicine (LMU-CVM) anatomy professors are working with international partners from Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) including Interim Director and CEO Dr. Mark Engstrom and Jacqueline Miller along with Dr. Gunther von Hagens of Gubener Plastinate GmbH in Germany to preserve the blue whale’s heart using a process called plastination.
The process involves preserving biological tissue by replacing water or fat with a polymer like silicone to produce a preserved specimen for anatomical study.
This international relationship between the partners began in 2014 while Nader, an emergency veterinarian with a background in wildlife and zoo medicine, was working in Florida. He heard about nine blue whales that died in Newfoundland, Canada, and felt compelled to help. Dr. Engstrom of ROM reached out to Nader because of his background, and his previous experience working with whales. Nader was asked to help remove the pelvic remnants and heart of one of the blue whales.
Thrilled for the opportunity, Nader convinced his boss to give him a week off work and he flew from Florida to Newfoundland at his own expense to work with this international group of volunteers to retrieve the organs of the blue whale.
Nader was able to help locate the heart and found it intact, but was unable to stay for the final day in which they made the incision and removed the heart. But he kept his pulse on the project along the way.
When the idea of using the plastination process to preserve the whale heart came up, Nader knew immediately who to turn to — Dr. Henry, an anatomy professor at Lincoln Memorial University, and a specialist in plastination.
“Dr. Henry and Dr. von Hagens (inventor of the plastination process) are the leading experts on animal plastination in the world,” said Nader. “I explicitly wanted to come teach at LMU to work with Dr. Henry because he is a specialist in plastination.”
In the fall of 2014, Nader got that chance when Dr. Henry gave him a call to let him know LMU-CVM was in need of an anatomy instructor. Nader jumped on the opportunity to work side by side with Henry and further their work together on the preservation of the whale heart. Henry believes that the anatomy of the blue whale heart is similar to but many times larger than that of sperm whales and ringed and harbor seals, which he has plastinated over the past thirty years.
To help continue the project, they contacted von Hagen’s company – Gubener Plastinate GmbH, Guben, Germany. von Hagens’ most notable work can be seen in the BODY WORLDS exhibition at museums around the world.
The biggest discovery during the project has been the size of the blue whale heart. It has always been believed that the approximate size of a blue whale heart, was that of a car. However, when they removed the heart, they found it to be much smaller than common literature suggests. The heart measured five feet wide and five and a half feet tall, and its collapsed state fit into a household chest deep freezer.
Though not as large as what was expected, it is still the largest heart Dr. Nader and Dr. Henry have ever worked on. In addition to preserving the whale heart, Dr. Nader and Dr. Henry are working on a publishing an article on the project with Dr. Ismael Concha, an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at LMU-CVM. Dr. Concha will be illustrating the whale heart in the publication.
Once the plastination process is complete, the blue whale heart with the skeleton of the animal is scheduled to be on display at the ROM in summer 2017.