An Anatomy Cabinet

Utrecht, Netherlands, July 2019 Among the many delights for a historian of medicine like me at the University Museum in Utrecht is a reconstructed anatomy cabinet from the late eighteenth century.  It contains objects from the collection of Jan Bleuland (1756-1838), professor of medicine and "rector magnificus" of the University.  Domenico Bertoloni Meli discussed Bleuland …

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Instructions for a voyage, 1609

A few weeks ago I looked at some manuscripts of the French intellectual and antiquarian Nicolas-Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France.  I describe Peiresc as an “intellectual”; he was one of those universal scholars we find in early modern Europe who were interested in everything.  Peiresc’s fame, such as it …

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The Possibility of Giants

Various large bones, discovered across Europe from around 1500 onward, raised the possibility among Renaissance naturalists and intellectuals that very large humans – some five or even ten meters tall – once existed in the past.  The idea of giant ancestors already was prominent among scholars: the hugely popular works of Annius of Viterbo, particularly …

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A Dwarf and his Skeleton

Last month I spent some time in Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library, looking at the catalogues of the anatomical preparations of London anatomist and man-midwife William Hunter (1718-1783).  Hunter, a Scot, left his collections to the University of Glasgow, where they still reside.   Among the anatomical preparations listed in 1784 was “A …

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Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017 I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks …

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The Secret Horror of Dissection

The eighteenth-century anatomist William Hunter (1718-1783) told his students that the practice of dissection “familiarizes the heart to a kind of necessary inhumanity.”(1)   A few decades  earlier, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) expressed more forcefully the “secret horror” that dissection, particularly of the human corpse, elicited in most of its practitioners.   His comments appeared in the “Description …

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