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.

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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.


02 03 tulip1Today I want to tell you about ‘tulipomania’, which manifested in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It’s a great example of how people can become spectacularly detached from reality, and just as quickly, come back to their senses again.

The seventeenth century was a golden age for the Dutch. They were newly independent from Spain and had massively increased their overseas trade. Merchants working with the newly formed Dutch East India Company could expect to make a 400% profit on a single voyage. There was a lot of money in the Netherlands and people wanted to show off a bit with their wealth. They built themselves grand houses and surrounded them with flower gardens. Growing plants that weren’t meant for either eating or for medicine really showed everyone you had money to burn.

Tulips were first imported to the country from Turkey in the middle of the sixteenth century. There were no other flowers to match their intense colour. By 1593, they had become very popular. Tulips usually came in red, yellow or white, but there were other, rarer kinds that were multicoloured, white with flame like markings in pink (rosen) or purple (violetten). Then there were the bizarden, white or yellow streaks against a background of red, purple or brown. Often, the edges of the petals were frilled. These were known as broken tulips; not because they thought there was anything wrong with them, they thought they were very beautiful and they were the most highly prized of all. But there was something wrong with them. The unusual colours and frilly petals appeared because the bulbs were infected with a virus called the ‘mosaic virus’.

02 03 tulip 2People were willing to pay higher prices for the bulbs that produced these flowers, but the virus meant that the bulbs were weakened and didn’t produce so many offsets (new bulbs). So they were rarer. That made them even more expensive and even more sought after. Unfortunately in the Netherlands in the mid 1630s, the tulips weren’t the only thing that was afflicted by disease. There was also a massive outbreak of bubonic plague. What with everyone thinking they might die at any moment, they rather threw caution to the wind and things started to get a bit out of hand.

Towards the end of 1636 people started to offer to buy bulbs that were still in the ground. Tulip bulbs are planted in the autumn, flower in the spring and the bulbs can be lifted, dried and sold in the summer. In the winter of 1666, people began to make offers to buy the bulbs, subject to seeing them flower in the spring. They made ridiculous offers and then they sold the bulbs, that they hadn’t yet bought or even seen, on to other people for even more money. The already expensive price of a tulip bulb doubled, then tripled and continued to rise. Much of the buying and selling of the bulbs took place in taverns in the city of Haarlem but there were markets in other towns too. The rather imaginary tulip bulbs could change hands up to ten times a day, the cost rising with each transaction. Prices got out of control because no one had to pay up all the money immediately. All they had to come up with was a 2.5% deposit. That money was generally spent on a round of drinks for everyone in the tavern, which didn’t really help anyone look at the whole thing sensibly.

People who didn’t have enough ready money started to offer goods, services, property in exchange for a tulip bulb. At the height of tulpiomania, bulbs were priced at 3,000 guilders, 5,000 guilders, 10,000 guilders. To put this in some sort of perspective, a skilled craftsman might, at that time, have earned 300 guilders in an entire year. You could have bought a small house for 1,000 guilders. It was entirely insane. It couldn’t last. A collapse was inevitable. On February 3rd 1637, in Haarlem, people just suddenly stopped bidding. Maybe someone came to their senses and everyone followed suit. They wouldn’t bid at the prices they had offered only the day before. The news spread to other towns, and suddenly no one wanted to buy. Everyone was trying to sell. The price of tulip bulbs dropped like a stone.

02 03 wagon of foolsA man called Charles Mackay wrote a very colourful account of tulipomania in his book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ in 1841. He would have you believe that everyone in the Netherlands, from the highest to the lowest was caught up in the tulip trade and were ruined by it. He also tells the story of an unfortunate sailor who accidentally ate a valuable tulip bulb, mistaking it for an onion. Probably neither of these are true. Tulip bulbs are not very nice to eat, in fact they can be poisonous if you don’t take the middle out and I don’t recommend it. At the end of the Second World War, many Dutch people were forced to eat tulip bulbs because they had nothing else. They do not remember it fondly.

There is no real evidence that many people were financially ruined in the winter of 1636/7. Not much money changed hands. Even the growers didn’t lose out, because if people declined to pay, they still had their tulip bulbs. In fact, people abroad became so fascinated with the bulb that had caused so much trouble that they wanted to see the tulip for themselves. This led to a large export business in flowers which is still working out pretty well for the Dutch today.

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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