The Art of Dying

03 28 ruyschToday is the birthday of Frederick Ruysch who was born in 1638 in The Hague. Someone who had himself painted pulling the insides out of a dead baby might seem like an unlikely candidate for ‘Why Today is Brilliant’, but bear with me. Ruysch is the last of three peculiar Dutch anatomists who I first stumbled upon last summer. They all studied at the university of Leiden in the 1660s. I have written about Reinier de Graaf and Jan Swammerdam elsewhere and how they fell out about who had discovered that humans had ovaries. As anatomists, what they really needed were corpses to dissect, but they were difficult to come by, had a disappointingly short shelf life and were rather expensive. They all became involved in finding a way to preserve anatomical specimens. They devised a way of injecting melted wax into blood vessels. When it cooled and set, they had something that they could dissect. It was a method that revealed delicate structures that had never been seen before. They stained the wax red to make the results a bit more lifelike. While de Graaf and Swammerdam were arguing about the nature of human reproduction, Ruysch was doing something else. He was making dioramas out of body parts.

03 28 vesaliusHis work was not entirely unprecedented. There were anatomical texts that showed bodies in dramatic poses. Take a look at this one from ‘De humani corporis fabrica’ by Andreas Vesalius which was published in 1543. But Ruysch had found a way of presenting actual specimens. He found a material that was even better than wax for injecting. It reached even the tiniest of vessels and, when coloured, gave a life-like quality to the whole specimen. He was pretty secretive about it, so no one is quite sure what it was. It may have included Berlin blue, mercury oxide and clotted pigs blood. But I’ve also come across mentions of spirits of Zeus and Poseidon. I have no idea what these are, if you do, I’d love to know. Later, he invented a clear liquid that he used to store his body parts in jars. It kept them soft and more life-like. He referred to it as ‘liquor balsamicum’ and I haven’t a clue what was in that either. It must have been good because some of his wet specimens still survive after more than three hundred years.

Ruysch amassed a huge collection of anatomical specimens. Initially, they were used only for medical study but when non-medical people heard about them, they wanted to see for themselves. He eventually displayed them in a series of cabinets in a private museum. Physicians were allowed free admission and, if they were particularly interested, could attend lectures given by Ruysch. The general public would pay an admission fee and be shown around by his daughter.

So far I have only mentioned anatomical specimens in the vaguest terms, and I promised you dioramas…

L0023489 F. Ruysch, Opera omnia anatomico-medico...
image credit: wellcome images

The centre piece of each cabinet was a little tableau, each of which conveyed some idea of the fleeting nature of human life. The main feature of these were foetal skeletons arranged in various poses. They would be playing the violin, clutching a string of pearls, weeping into a handkerchief. Ruysch actually had access to a lot of foetal skeletons as, in 1668, he was made chief instructor to the midwives of Amsterdam. (He managed to collect and preserve foetuses at all stages of development.) The rest of the scene was made up from bladder, kidney and gallstones for rocks, preserved blood vessels for trees and preserved lung tissue for grass and bushes. Even the handkerchiefs that his tiny skeletons were weeping into were made from the membrane that covers the brain. It all seems rather macabre, but this was not Ruysch’s intention at all. He saw them as beautiful objects that would: “allay the distaste of people who are naturally inclined to be dismayed by the sight of corpses.” It worked too. His anatomical preparations, partly teaching aid, partly works of art, did go a long way towards dispelling some of the stigma attached to the study of anatomy.


As well as doctors and the general population of Amsterdam his museum was frequented by the rich and famous. In 1697, he was visited by Peter the Great. Peter had a keen interest in all things scientific. Ruysch taught him how to catch and preserve butterflies and they had a common interest in lizards. The Tsar liked what he had seen so much that he returned for a second visit in 1717 and bought the entire collection for 30,000 guilders. Ruysch’s collection was installed in Tsar Peter’s Kunstkamera in St Petersburg where it helped to introduce ideas of European Enlightenment and modern sciences to Russia.

Ruysch immediately began to build a new collection. After his death in 1731, it was sold to Augustus the Strong, King of Poland. It is from Peter the Great’s collection that some of Ruysch’s specimens still survive. If you visit this site, you can see some photographs of a few of them. There is the hand of a child clutching the heart of an unborn baby. To cover the place where the hand was cut off there is a beautiful lace cuff that was probably made by his daughter. Some of the site is in English, though you will have the advantage of me if you speak Dutch. Sadly none of his dioramas have survived the test of time but luckily, they were carefully recorded in a series of drawings by Cornelius Huyberts, which is a good thing, otherwise you might not have believed me.

03 28 diorama 1


Today I am rather torn. I have a saint who I first discovered a year ago, when this blog was no more than a series of text messages sent during the Leicester Comedy Festival. I also have one of a triumvirate of very peculiar Dutch anatomists whose work I have come to enjoy over the last six months or so. I may have to tell you about both.

02 12 saint julian with stagToday is the feast day of Saint Julian the Hospitaller. I’ve no idea when or where he lived, but he is easily the favourite in my category of unlikely saints. When I’m looking at saints, generally what I’m most interested in is how they are depicted in art and what they have been declared ‘patron saint’ of. A quick scroll through the information on Saint Julian revealed that he is sometimes pictured as: ‘man listening to a talking stag’ or: ‘young man killing his parents in bed’. Among other things, he is the patron saint of innkeepers, carnival workers and murders.

The story of Julian is not unlike that of Oedipus but without the ‘sex with his mother’ part. At the age of ten, Julian left his parents home. Perhaps because he had been cursed by witches who foretold that he would one day kill his own parents. There is another story which tells us that he was completely obsessed by hunting and that, while out in the forest, he shot a talking stag which told him that because Julian had shot him, when he wasn’t doing any harm but just having a bit of a rest in the undergrowth, he would one day kill both his parents and that there was nothing he could do to escape his fate.

02 12 saint julian the hospitallerBut Julian did try to escape, he ran away hoping never to see his parents again. He eluded his fate for twenty years. He settled down and got married. But when he was thirty his parents, who were searching for him arrived in the town where he lived. In a freak encounter, they met his wife who immediately invited them back to the house. Julian was, at the time, out hunting and she suggested his parents, who were tired after their journey, had a bit of a lie down while they were waiting. Meanwhile Julian was visited by a shadowy figure, who I presume to be the Devil, but he is referred to as ‘the enemy’. You can see the enemy pictured above, he’s the one in the pink leotard. The enemy told him that his wife was at home in bed with her lover. Julian rushed home, saw two figures sleeping in his bed and immediately killed them both.

Then, his life once more in ruins, he was about to leave town when who should he see but his wife. She told him the story and they both realised what had happened. Of course, they both felt terrible about it and Julian and his wife moved away. They took up ferrying people backwards and forwards across a river and taking in weary travellers as penance. Then one day they ferried a leper over the river in a terrible storm. They warmed him, fed him and even acquiesced when the leper asked to be put to bed with Julian’s wife when he just couldn’t get warm. Luckily, the leper turned out to be an angel in disguise and he forgave them for their sins. All this is in an extremely long and dull account of the Saint’s life from the Golden Legend. Take my advice and give it a miss. But it seems to end with Julian and his wife being murdered in their beds by robbers.

If you want to read something really spectacular about Julian the Hospitaller, there is a story by Gustave Flaubert. In it, Julian is an enormously blood-thirsty child whose trail of slaughter begins with him killing a mouse in church and escalates until he slaughters an entire valley full of deer. That’s when he gets cursed by the stag. At the end, the leper gets into bed with Julian, not his wife. You can find it here. Or, if you don’t like the sound of that, there is a tale in Bocaccio’s Decameron about a devotee of Saint Julian which is relatively easy to find. The Decameron is a long series of one hundred tales that is, in format, a little like the Canterbury Tales. It is an early written source for many of the fairy tales of Perrault. In Bocacchio’s tale, a travelling merchant, who always prays to Julian for a good place to spend the night, is attacked by robbers, abandoned by his servant and left out in the snow in just his shirt. But then he gets taken in by a lady whose lover has deserted her for the evening. They both have a lovely time and it all ends happily.

02 12 jan swammerdamToday is also the birthday of Jan Swammerdam, which is an excellent name. Swammerdam was born on this day in 1637 in Amsterdam. He is probably best remembered for his work on insects. He discovered that insects do not spontaneously spring to life out of the mud, like everyone thought, but come from eggs and larvae. He discovered this using a microscope and once dissected a caterpillar for Cosimo de Medici to show him that it already had, inside its body, the beginnings of the wings it would grow when it became a butterfly. He also found, more than a hundred years before Galvani, that when the muscle of a frog’s leg contracts, it does not increase in size. He expected that it would because it was thought that muscles were controlled by animal spirits running through the nerves. If the muscle was full of spirits, it should get bigger. It didn’t. If anything, it shrank a little. Unfortunately, Swammerdam just thought there was something wrong with his experiment and he abandoned it.

Neither of those things are how I first met him though. I came across him because of a huge controversy between himself and fellow student Regnier de Graaf over who had been the first to discover that eggs grew inside human female ovaries. Both men had been students of Johannes van Horne at the university of Leiden in the Netherlands along with a man now known as Steno. Anatomists had dissected female reproductive organs before, they had noticed ovaries, but referred to them as ‘female testes’ and didn’t really know what they were for. Steno theorised that they would probably turn out to contain eggs: “I have no doubt that the testicles of women are analogous to the ovary” was what he said, but he didn’t do anything to prove it. Swammerdam and his tutor van Horne did though. They set about trying to find the eggs in human ovaries. Van Horne managed to publish a brief account of his discoveries in 1668. But then in 1670, he died of plague. Swammerdam continued their work but soon found out that fellow student, de Graaf, was working on the same thing.

What happened next was something between a race to publish and a fight that dragged in the newly formed Royal Society in London. De Graaf published a paper where he theorised that the eggs were fertilised by seminal vapour rising up from the womb. Swammerdam responded by drawing a picture of a dissected human ovary and uterus and sending it to the Royal Society. In March 1672 de Graaf published a book about female generative organs. He had noticed that, in rabbits there were burst follicles in the ovaries after mating and also round objects in the fallopian tubes. He concluded that they were eggs that had come form the burst follicles and that it was as a result of mating.

02 12 miraculum naturaeSwammerdam published his own account two months later. He said the bursting follicles thing was nonsense because he had observed the same thing in the ovaries of virgins. He also stated that he and van Horne had come up with the idea first (there was no way of proving him wrong) and also de Graafs drawings were rubbish. Swammerdam dedicated his book to the Royal Society and also sent them a beautifully preserved female uterus along with twelve other items of genital anatomy, including a dissected penis, a clitoris and a hymen. He asked the Royal Society to adjudicate in their argument over which of them had come up with the idea of women having eggs first. De Graaf came back with a publication entitled: ‘Partium Genitalium Defensio’ (Defence of the genital parts). In it he was very rude about Swammerdam and accused him of being ‘blinded by anger and hatred’, but didn’t really come up with any new evidence that would help with the egg controversy.

I feel rather sorry for the Royal Society. How were they supposed to come up with a suitable answer? They appointed a committee of three and eventually found in favour of… Steno. It didn’t really matter though because de Graaf died a week before they made their final decision. Swammerdam wrote a reply, but we don’t know what he said, because the letter is lost. Steno had, by that time, given up science and become a bishop. So he probably never knew about any of it. The Royal Society had had enough of it all by then and didn’t even publish the report on their findings for another eighty years. They liked Swammerdam’s anatomical specimens though. Their secretary, Henry Oldenberg described them as: “very fascinating and prepared with exceeding ingenuity.” In fact, in later years he got into trouble with the Royal Society for taking them home with him.

Waxing Anatomical

01 21 anna morandi
photo credit: warburg. licensed under creative commons

Today is the birthday of Anna Morandi Manzolini, who was born in Bologna on this day in 1714. Anna was an anatomist and anatomical wax modeller with an international reputation. She was also Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bologna. You might be surprised to find a female university professor in the eighteenth century, but in fact, she was one of several. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about the painter Elisabetta Sirani, that Bologna had a very liberal attitude towards the education of women.

The study of anatomy had always been a tricky subject. There was the difficulty of obtaining bodies in the first place. Then, with no way of preserving their specimens, it quickly became extremely unpleasant. Dissections were mainly confined to the winter months because the cold weather meant that the cadavers would decompose less quickly. The idea of using wax to make anatomical models was developed towards the end of the seventeenth century, by wax artist Gaetano Giulio Zumbo and surgeon Guillaume Desnoues, in Florence. Wax was an ideal material. It could be coloured, it could be moulded easily and, when it was varnished, a really good anatomical model was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Wax models as an aid to anatomical study was brought to Bologna by Ercole Lelli in the 1730s.

In 1736, Anna Morandi married Giovanni Manzolini who, at the age of forty, joined the school of Ercole Lelli where he learned the art of anatomical wax modelling. Three years later, he was Lelli’s chief assistant. Three years after that the two fell out because Giovanni did not get the recognition for his work that he deserved and he resigned.

After leaving Lelli, Giovanni opened his own wax modelling studio and school of anatomy. Anna, who had trained as an artist, assisted her husband in his work. She learned wax modelling, anatomy and how to dissect cadavers. Together, they were recognised by both artists and anatomists throughout Europe. Giovanni became Professor of Anatomy at the university whilst Anna continued to teach anatomy in their home studio. While she was doing all this, she also gave birth to six children, four of whom died in infancy. When her husband became ill with tuberculosis, she began to lecture in his place at the university. In 1755, he died and she was awarded an annual stipend by Pope Gregory XIV in recognition of her skills. She continued her anatomical work and became a member of the Academy of Arts, which was part of the Institute of Science. In 1760 she was made Chair of Anatomical modelling at the University of Bologna. She remained at the university despite repeated offers from the Royal Society in London and the court of Catherine the Great in Russia.

Anna and her husband used actual body parts to make the casts for their models. So they still had the awful smelly job of real anatomical dissections. Over time they had access to over a thousand unclaimed bodies from the public hospitals of Bologna. Anna’s skill eventually surpassed that of her husband. She was able to reproduce capillary vessels and nerves in minute detail. Her models were bought, not only by teaching institutions, but also by private collectors. Visits to her studio and anatomical wax museum became a popular stop on the Grand tour. Anna’s particular specialities were the sensory and reproductive organs. Many of her models can still be seen in the collection at the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna. You can also see the portrait in wax pictured above, which Anna made herself, it shows her at work dissecting a human brain. It is a very different sort of female portrait that is usually associated with anatomical wax modelling. Usually, the woman is the subject of the dissection, lying naked on the table, in an alluring posture and usually pregnant. Anna looks like a capable woman, just getting on with her work. Sadly in this picture, she’s had the tools of her trade, which were in her hands, taken away. But they have now been restored to her.

Wax is still used for anatomical modelling. If you want to take a look at a modern wax sculptor, we found this video of Eleanor Crook, from the Wellcome Collection. It’s brilliant.

Form And Function

10 11 orson squire fowlerToday is the birthday of Ogden Squire Fowler, who was born in Cohocton, New York in 1809. You may not have heard of him, but he was pretty famous in the mid-nineteenth century for his work in phrenology. Fowler had begun his adult life on a different course. He had walked four hundred miles to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts to train for a career in the Church. But then he attended a lecture by Johann Spuzheim, a Viennese doctor who was one of the leading proponents of Phrenology. This was at a time when people were just beginning to understand that different areas of the brain were responsible for different functions. The idea behind Phrenology was that every personality characteristic was governed by a different area of the brain. That meant that if a person had an abundance of a particular characteristic, such as benevolence or firmness, that area of the brain would be larger, resulting in a bump in the skull. Fowler was fascinated, he was soon reading the skulls of his fellow students at two cents a time.

10 11 phrenologyAfter leaving college he travelled the country, lecturing on Phrenology and reading heads. He was soon accompanied by his brother Lorenzo and they eventually set up a practice in New York. They were later joined by their sister Charlotte. It was quite the family affair and when Lorenzo married a doctor, Lydia Folger, she gave some medical credence to their operation. It was hugely popular and they had a lot of famous clients including President James Garfield and the author Walt Whitman. Despite only charging a dollar for an examination and three dollars for a written report, they were soon pretty wealthy. Fowler branched out into publishing, writing a book and also a magazine on the subject.

Phrenology though, was not really enough for him and he began to think that he could improve other areas of peoples lives. He also produced books about health, religion and oddly, architecture. Fowler’s own head bumps had led him to believe that he would be a pretty good architect. He was particularly enamoured of the octagonal house. An eight sided house allowed for more windows and this meant more light, less dark corners and a free flow of air around the house. A central staircase would also allow air to circulate more easily and he felt this would make the house easier to heat in cold weather and to keep cool in the summer. Fowler was not a fan of internal hallways, he preferred a veranda, which meant going outside to get to the next room. He wrote ‘A Home for All, or A New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building.’ in 1848. He claimed that they provided more interior space and were cheaper to build, though this was largely because he favoured poured concrete walls over brick or stone.

10 11 octagon houseFowler built his own octagonal house at Fishkills, New York. It was massive. It was ninety feet tall, had four storeys and sixty rooms. It had a cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. Inside it had a dumb waiter to bring food from the kitchen in the basement and speaking tubes to allow communication around the house. I do love a speaking tube. Fowler’s ideas led to hundreds, maybe thousands of octagonal houses being built all over the United States in the mid eighteenth century.

Ogden Squire Fowler really began to fall out of favour when he published what was basically a sex manual with the catchy title of ‘Sexuality Restored And Warning And Advice To Youth Against Perverted Amativeness: Including Its Prevention And Remedies As Taught By Phrenology And Physiology’. I haven’t been able to find out much about it. It seems to have approached the subject by looking at it in the light of having children and raising them to healthy and respectable adults. One of the chapter titles is: ‘How young husbands should treat their brides; how to increase their love and avoid shocking them.’ He thought that women should enjoy sex and absolutely not wear corsets, both of which were quite shocking notions at the time. This, and the fact that he also lectured on the subject, really spoiled his reputation. He was accused of giving “private lectures to ladies…of an immoral character—often grossly obscene in action and speech,” and the Chicago Tribune said that he: “disseminated the seeds of vice” under the “cloak of science” which conjures up an interesting image.

However, he didn’t really want people to get too carried away by sex, basically his message seems to have been that people should enjoy themselves but not too much. Depravity should definitely be avoided, as this could lead to couples having weak and sickly children. This was not well received, particularly by the parents of weak and sickly children.

My Brain Hurts

09 13 phineas gageToday’s post starts with a word of warning. I am celebrating someone’s miraculous survival of a horrific accident. If you don’t like thinking about catastrophic physical injuries, don’t read this.

Phineas Gage was a strong and healthy twenty-five year old who made his living working with explosives. And already you see how this could go horribly wrong don’t you? He was working as a blasting foreman on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad just south of Cavendish, Vermont. I need to tell you at this point that he had asked a local blacksmith to make him a tamping stick of his own design. A tamping stick is a long metal rod used to push explosives into a hole, often into the barrel of a gun, but in this case into a hole in a rock that was too big to move and needed to be blasted out. Gage’s tamping stick was 3 ft 7 in (1.09 m) and 1¼ in (just over 3 cm) wide. It tapered to a point at the top and weighed more than thirteen pounds. There was no other like it.

On this day in the year 1848 he was charging a powder hole that had been drilled into a rock. What was supposed to happen was that sand would be poured in on top of the explosive. He directed his assistant to pour in the sand and then turned away momentarily. He did not see that his order had not been carried out. He dropped his tamping stick into the hole. The powder ignited and there was an explosion. His iron spike was thrust through his chin, out of the top of his head, high into the air and landed several yards away.

Gage was thrown onto his back but managed to speak after a few minutes. His friends helped him to an ox cart and he was taken back to his lodgings three quarters of a mile away. He was able to get out of the cart and walk, with a little assistance. When the doctor arrived he found his patient lucid and able to describe what had happened. Leaving out some of the gory details (though, if you’re so inclined, you can find them here), a second doctor was arrived and together they removed some loose fragments of bone and dressed his wounds. The next day his speech had deteriorated. The day after that he was delirious. But two days later he showed some improvement. The following month he took a turn for the worse and was almost comatose, but his doctor lanced a cerebral abscess and he began to recover. By the middle of November he was up and about and insisting on returning to his home town. It was a terrible injury but the pointed end of the stick was probably what saved him. It caused less trauma than a blunt object would have.

Although his physical recovery seemed to be going well, it seems his mental state was somewhat erratic. He returned to his parents home on November 25th but travelled in a closed carriage. What is meant by this is a carriage used to transport the insane. In the first few years following the accident his doctor, John Harlow, described him as being impatient, rude, obstinate and capricious. He tells us Gage was: A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Of course Harlow did not know his patient before the accident but his friends said that he was so changed that he was “no longer Gage”.

He must have recovered mentally to some extent because by the following February he was able to do some work on his parent’s farm. Later he exhibited himself, along with his iron spike at Barnum’s American Museum in New York and around the towns of New Hampshire and Vermont. After that he worked for the owner of a livery and coach service in New Hampshire. In 1852 he was offered a job as a stagecoach driver in Chile. His route took him from Valparaiso to Santiago, a distance of over a hundred miles. To do a job like that, which required a 4am start, caring for horses, dealing with passengers, loading their luggage and collecting their fairs as well as the gruelling journey, he must surely have made a significant psychological recovery. Especially as he did all this in a country unfamiliar to him. Gage kept this job until 1859 when he became ill. He returned to his parents home and began to recover but then began to suffer epileptic fits. The fits became gradually worse and he died in 1860, a little under twelve years after his accident.

09 13 phineas gage skullNo autopsy was carried out on Gage so no one will ever know what the extent of his injuries were. In 1866 Dr Harlow discovered that his patient had died and managed to obtain his skull (with his family’s permission) along with his iron spike. Both now reside in the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard. Harlow was able to conclude, after examining the skull, that the damage had been limited to the left frontal lobe of the brain. Little was known about the functions of different areas of the brain at that time but Harlow did realise that Gage would not have survived if the injury had damaged the back part of his brain. If his right frontal lobe had remained undamaged as the doctor suggested, it would have been able to adapt and take on some of the functions of the damaged area.

Gage’s case has been used to prove many (often conflicting) stories about the nature of the brain but in truth no one really knows enough about his demeanour, before of after the accident, or the extent to which his brain was damaged, to really draw any useful conclusions. Often they suggest that post-accident he was irresponsible, violent, untrustworthy and couldn’t hold down a job, that he mistreated his wife and child and that he was generally a psychopath. Yet he held down a difficult job for seven years and never married. If his case shows us anything it is how quickly facts can grow into a myth. His personality has been reconstructed to fit in with what people think they know about the function of the frontal lobes of the brain in regard to self control.


09 09 luigi galvaniToday I am celebrating the birthday of Luigi Galvani who was born in Bologna, Italy in 1737. He attended the University of Bologna where he studied medicine, surgery and philosophy. He became a lecturer at the university and in 1762 became a permanent anatomist and head of surgery there. In 1776 his interest moved into theoretical anatomy and he was appointed as anatomy teacher at the Academy of Sciences. One of his tasks there was give an annual public anatomy lesson which involved a human dissection. This seems like a very odd affair and I wish I had more time today to read about it. The event was part of a carnival that took place in January and the specially built theatre where it took place was decked out for the occasion with rich fabrics and candles. Some of the attendees were the masked carnival goers.

09 09 frog's legsIn the mid eighteenth century scientists had just discovered how to store electricity in a Leyden Jar and the effects of electricity on the body was a subject of much interest. Galvani is best known as the person who first applied an electrical charge to the legs of a dissected frog and observed that it caused the muscles to contract as if the frog were still alive. I can’t find a specific date for the event and it seems that it happened by accident. His assistant was using a brass hook to hold the leg still and touched a muscle with a steel scalpel that had picked up an electrical charge from a nearby static electricity generator. Anatomists knew that the movement of muscles were somehow governed by the brain and the nervous system, but it was generally believed that the nerves were hollow structures filled with fluid or air that flowed in and out of the muscles causing them to expand of contract. Galvani concluded that the nerves transmitted a kind of electrical charge, which he called animal electricity, from the brain.

09 09 voltaic pileIn a way, he was right, the brain and nerves do operate using tiny bursts of electrical energy, but the charge would have been much too small for him to measure. The chemist and physicist Alessandro Volta disagreed with his conclusion. He realised that the muscle of the frog was acting as a conductor of electricity which completed a circuit between the two different metals. He found that a sheet of brine soaked paper would work just as well to make a connection between the metals. This work led to him developing the first battery, the Voltaic Pile, in 1799.

Galvani’s report on his electrical experiments was also part of Mary Shelley’s summer reading list when, in 1816, she was spending and unseasonable summer at Lake Geneva. It was here, at the Villa Diodati, on a dark and stormy night, that she first had an idea for a story about a young doctor who used electricity to re-animate a corpse.09 09 charles ogle, frankenstein, 1910

Heavy Heart

08 17 saint clare paintingJust a short one today as I spent ages doing a drawing. Today is the feast day of Saint Clare of Montefalco. She was born around 1268 in the Umbria region of Italy. When she was six years old she went to live with two of her sisters in a hermitage that her father had built for them. More women joined them and by 1278 they needed a bigger hermitage. I’ve always thought of a hermitage as a solitary sort of dwelling, but apparently it’s not.

The sisters founded an Augustinian order. Clare’s sister Joan became the first abbess, but when she died Clare was appointed as her successor in 1291. Three years later, during Epiphany, Clare fell into an ecstasy and remained in that state for several weeks. The nuns had to feed her sugar water to keep her alive as she was unable to eat. She later described a vision of herself being judged by God and one in which she met Jesus, dressed in rags and carrying his cross. Jesus was upset because he couldn’t find anywhere to plant his cross. She offered him help to find a place, but he said he had, at last, found it and he planted his cross in her heart.

This was not just a metaphor for Clare, it was an actual physical thing. She felt the pain of it for the rest of her life. When she died, her heart was removed and cut open. Inside were found a crucifix and other symbols of the Passion. When the bishop heard of it he didn’t believe it was true. He went to examine the evidence, convinced it was a trick played by the nuns. His intention was to punish those responsible for committing the fraud. When he saw the heart though, he had to admit that he couldn’t find any evidence of fabrication of artifice. It seems that the figure of Jesus was about the size of a thumb and white except for a tiny aperture in his right side which was bright red. There were also a scourge and crown of thorns made from whitish nerve fibres and three nails made from dark fibrous tissue.

It’s hard to imagine such a thing, so I looked to see if there was a drawing anywhere. I did find one, but it was a really terrible scan from an old book. So I have re-drawn it for you here.08 17 heart

Venereal Combat And Libidinous Imagining

07 30 de graaf 4Today is the birthday of Regnier de Graaf who was born on this day in 1641 in Schoonhoven in the Netherlands. He is one of a group of medical students who studied at the University aof Leiden. They’re an odd bunch, and all interesting in their own way. The university was founded in 1575 by William I of Orange. It seems that the people of the city were asked to choose between a university and a cut in taxes. They chose the university. Good choice.

De Graaf was really interested in anatomy. He devised a syringe that was capable of injecting a wax substance into the veins of anatomical specimens which would then harden. This made their structure much clearer during dissection. His fellow student, Frederik Ruysch put this method to a very unusual use, but we’ll save that for his birthday in March (or just look him up now, you won’t be disappointed).

07 30 de graaf 1To get back to Regnier, his particular field of interest was the reproductive organs of mammals. Mainly he worked on rabbits but also performed some human dissections. He discovered the mass of tiny tubes that make up the inside of a testicle and concluded that it must be where semen came from. De Graaf’s publishing of his findings sparked a massive row, first with former tutor and fellow students and then with members of the Royal Society in London over who had come up with the idea first. It ended with de Graaf sending a dormouse testicle in a bottle to the Royal Society. They had to admit that he had made his point but wished that he had sent them a larger testicle. His book, with the catchy title of ‘Treatise concerning the generative organs of men; on enemas and on the use of syringes in anatomy’ also contains a method of filling a dissected penis with water to make it erect, thus creating hours of fun for medical students for hundreds of years to come.

07 30 de graaf 3Since the time of Aristotle in had been generally assumed that in humans, fertilization occurred due to a mixing of semen with menstrual blood in the womb. Anatomists had noticed ovaries and called them female testes. They didn’t really know what they did though. De Graaf suggested that fertilization took place in the ovary, involving an egg that originated and pre-existed there. He knew that the already fertilised egg must travel down the fallopian tube into the womb because he had observed ectopic pregnancies.

It also seems that he discovered and described female ejaculation. He describes ducts around the inside of the urethra, which appear to be what are now called Skene’s ducts. He describes a structure surrounding the urethral canal as a kind of female prostate which he says secretes a pituito-serous juice which makes women more libidinous with its pungency and saltiness and lubricates their sexual parts in agreeable fashion during coitus. He believed that the liquid came from a variety of sources including the urethra and vagina. He does not appear to distinguish between the lubrication of the perineum during arousal and an orgasmic ejaculate, though he does describe a fluid which rushes out with such impetus during venereal combat or libidinous imagining. This is obviously a translation as he wrote in Latin but still delightful.

He managed to make all his observations without access to a microscope, which is pretty amazing.

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