In the latest issue of the History of Science Society Newsletter, I talked about how historians of science can, and should, apply for research grants from the National Science Foundation. You can read the essay here.
[This is excerpted from the talk I gave at the New York Academy of Medicine on 13 September 2016, which was itself excerpted from my book The Courtiers’ Anatomists]
Under cover of night, the dead of Paris made their journey from the burial grounds to the places of dissection. In this era of recurrent plagues, their numbers never dwindled, nor did they lie quiet in their graves. The cemetery of Saints-Innocents, between the rue de Ferronerie and the rue St. Denis, was one of the few places with street lamps until the 1670s.
But its dim beacon did not deter physicians and surgeons from exhuming bodies. Shadows from their torches made the danse macabre painted onto into one of the bone-houses, the charniers, seem to move.
Saints-Innocents had been filled many times over, and new bodies displaced the bones of the old to the charniers. The Flemish anatomist known as Vesalius fondly remembered the piles of bones there during his days as a medical student; he and his friends blindfolded themselves and took bets as to who could identify the most bones by touch. Medical men trundled the bodies from Saints-Innocents south down the rue St. Denis. At the river they came to the fortress of the Grand Châtelet, which housed the prévôt de Paris who administered the king’s justice as well as a court and prisons, and the second street lamp in Paris.
An interior courtyard of the Châtelet served as a morgue for corpses of the drowned and the anonymous found dead in the streets, who were exposed to await identification. An English physician reported in 1698 that the anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney obtained some of the many bodies used for anatomical demonstrations from “the Chatelet, (where those are exposed who are found murthered in the Streets, which is a very common business at Paris).”
The very poor exposed in the Châtelet’s courtyard were referred to as “animaux urbains,” urban animals. But actual animals far outnumbered human corpses on early modern dissection tables. Animals were as important to this new practice of anatomy as the human body for many reasons. Anatomists could easily acquire them, and animals had no inconvenient relatives to protest their dissection. Unlike “resurrected” corpses, they were fresh – so fresh that they were often still alive. And in many important respects, they resembled humans enough to demonstrate human function. These Humanist physicians, steeped in classical philosophy, knew that both Aristotle and Galen had relied upon the structure of animals to talk about the human body.
Even before they reached the dissection room, the human dead commingled with animals. The stalls of Les Halles, the biggest market in Paris, backed up to the walls of Saint-Innocents. The stench of Saint-Innocents combined with the stink of the rue de la Boucherie, Butchers’ Row. In the dark, the medical men could not see the banks of the Seine or the surrounding streets stained red with blood. Here during the day the anatomists could get the pigs and sheep they preferred to dissect alive, as well as animal parts for practice. Night was the time to round up stray cats and dogs that anatomists used by the dozen. The Paris Academy of Sciences employed a man to “find” cats and dogs, not a difficult task.
From the Châtelet, the anatomists crossed a bridge to the Ile de la Cité and the Hôtel Dieu, the largest hospital in Paris, next to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Until the early 1670s, the hospital buried its dead not at Saints-Innocents but farther north at the cemetery of la Trinité. Eager surgeons importuned the emballeurs who shrouded the bodies (these dead were too poor for coffins) and piled them on carts for their evening journey to the cemetery, and those who were fired in 1626 for selling bodies were unlucky to be caught.
On the 12th of May, 1543, Jakob Karrer von Getweiler was executed in Basel, Switzerland. Reports say he was beheaded, although hanging was a more usual mode of execution. Karrer was a bigamist who attacked his legal wife with a knife after she discovered his second wife. According to a contemporary account, Karrer was a habitual criminal, and he left his wife grievously injured. Although she did not die, he was sentenced to death.
The renowned Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius had been in Basel for several months to supervise the publication of his magnum opus, De humani corpus fabrica libri septem (Seven books on the structure of the human body), published in Basel later that year. Perhaps it was inevitable that Vesalius was granted Karrer’s body to dissect. Only executed criminals could be publicly dissected, with the blessing of the Basel Senate. We do not know if the Senate offered Vesalius the beheaded body or if he requested it. But Vesalius dissected Karrer, in front of an audience.
He then took Karrer’s dissected remains with the intention of making an articulated skeleton. In chapter 39 of Book 1 of De fabrica, Vesalius had detailed for the first time the lengthy and gruesome process of constructing a skeleton. He included this illustration of someone handing down a decapitated head from a scaffold. Some of the techniques had existed for quite a while; the 14th century physician Guy de Chauliac noted “Nous faisons aussi l’Anatomie [d]es corps desseichez au Soleil, ou consommez en terre, ou fondus en eau courante ou bouillante » (we make an anatomy of bodies dried in the sun, or consumed by the earth, or dissolved in running or boiling water – “an anatomy” here indicates a skeleton). Macerating in water and then drying in the sun were long-known methods of preparing bones for transport.
In his chapter, Vesalius first described the conventional method of preparing a skeleton, and illustrated it in one of the initial letters in his book. As much flesh as possible was cut off of the body – without severing the joints or the ligaments – before it was put in a long perforated box, covered with quicklime, and sprinkled with water. After a week the box was placed in a stream of running water and the flesh would presumably fall off of the bones and be washed away over a period of several more days. Then the body was removed from the box, further cleaned with a knife, and posed in the sun to dry in a particular position, held together by its ligaments.
Vesalius described this method only to denigrate it as time consuming, dirty, and difficult; moreover, the blackened ligaments would cover the joints and other parts of interest. He proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the proper way to separate human bones from flesh. “Get any kind of cadaver somewhere,” he began. The corpse was dissected and then boiled “in a large and capacious cauldron … of the kind women use for the preparation of lye over the fire.” He saved the cartilaginous parts such as the ears and stuck them to a piece of paper, and placed the organs and blood (squeezed out of a sponge) in another vessel.
The bones were boiled, carefully covered by water at all times, for several hours, with regular skimming off of froth and fat. The bones of children, he said, take less time than adults. “The object of the cooking is to clean the bones as thoroughly as is done with the knife while eating.”
Therefore one should pull out individual bones from the “broth” with tongs from time to time and clean them further with the hands or a knife, but this job should not be entrusted to a mere amateur. The knives he used were similar, if not identical, to the knives wielded by such master meat-carvers as Vincenzo Cervio later in the sixteenth century, and the language of cooking is explicit. One then placed the cleaned bones in more boiling water, and finally removed them, carefully drying them with a rough cloth to remove remaining bits.
The bones should not be allowed to dry too much. If they are not too hardened, a shoemaker’s awl may be used to punch holes for the copper wire used to string the bones together, although in the 1555 second edition of De fabrica Vesalius also described a bone drill he had constructed. He recommended starting with the feet and working upward, the reverse of the common head-to-toe order of dissection. An iron rod, made to order, supported the vertebrae; the arms were then assembled and wired to the trunk.
With characteristic macabre whimsy Vesalius recommended posing the skeleton with a scythe, or a pike, or a javelin, and suggested stringing the ear bones and ears onto a nerve to make a necklace (when I read this I could only think of Tim O’Brien’s surreal story “The Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” in The Things They Carried (1990), and its heroine Mary Anne who wears, at the end, a necklace made up of severed Viet Cong ears).
The skeleton of Jacob Karrer, unlike most others from this era, still survives, and is on display at the anatomy museum in Basel, where I saw it a few months ago.
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 du Cabinet du Roy” (description of the Cabinet of the King), which began the third volume of Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), published in 1749. Daubenton had studied dissection in the 1730s with François-Joseph Hunauld at the Jardin du Roi, the royal botanical garden, which housed the royal “cabinet” of natural history and anatomical specimens, including a room devoted entirely to skeletons.
Buffon became intendant or director of the Garden in 1739, and a few years later summoned Daubenton (now qualified as a physician) from their hometown of Montbard near Dijon to help with the inventory of the collections. Daubenton’s detailed inventory of the human remains at the Garden, which included skeletons, preserved body parts, and anatomical models in wax and other materials, occupied over half of volume III but is much less well known than the second half of Buffon’s “Histoire naturelle de l’homme” (Natural history of man, begun in volume II) that concluded the volume. Daubenton began the section on anatomical models and waxes with this heartfelt plea for dissection, however horrific its seemed to its practitioners. (The translation is mine, and I have kept Daubenton’s 18th-century punctuation.)
“Most men naturally have a secret horror for anatomical dissection: nearly all those whom I have seen enter for the first time into an anatomical theater have been seized with that kind of terror that the view of a cadaver, bloody & torn to shreds, imprints; this image of death seems to express at the same time a sensation of the most cruel pain: it is only by the force of habit that one is able to view in cold blood such hideous & terrible things: also they are only ordinarily those obligated by their status as anatomists, who study that science in dissecting the human body, others would be moved far away by the mere smell that a cadaver exhales when it is kept; that odor is even sometimes so penetrating, that the most experienced Anatomists are affected by it to the point of succumbing to colics & other illnesses. The difficulties that one experiences in order to have subjects on which to pursue this study, renders it as costly as it is tiresome; despite these obstacles anatomy has made very great progress in recent years, many authors have given us exact descriptions & faithful drawings of all the parts of the body: but what are these descriptions & images in comparison to the real things? It is a shadow in place of the body.” (2)
(1)William Hunter, “Introductory lecture to students” [circa 1780]. St Thomas’s Hospital, London, MS 55: 182.
(2) [Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, with Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton], Histoire naturelle générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy, tome III. Paris : De l’Imprimerie Royale, 1749, p. 210
The featured image is Plate 9, Histoire Naturelle, tome III. BNF.
12 September 2015
A week ago I drove up to Portland with my grad student Elizabeth to interview the biologist John Tyler Bonner.
We were both amused, or bemused, by the declaration of the Institutional Review Board at Oregon State that the interview did not qualify as research (and therefore did not need IRB approval, a good thing) and wondered what we would learn. As readers of this blog know, I’m a historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and my knowledge of the history of modern biology is pretty sketchy. Elizabeth’s interest in Bonner’s work was related to her research on the British biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), who also worked in natural history, classics, and a few other things. Bonner had abridged Thompson’s enormous 1917 study On Growth and Form in the early 1960s – the abridgement is still in print – and Elizabeth wanted to ask him about that. I knew that Bonner was an important evolutionary and developmental biologist, that he was 95, and that he lived in an ashram in Portland. I was not sure what to expect.
The ashram is a large rambling house in Laurelhurst in Northeast Portland and offers yoga classes. One of Bonner’s sons lives there, and he moved there from Princeton a few years ago. We made our way around the building to the entrance amid people carrying yoga mats and Dr. Bonner came down and met us. We took off our shoes and followed him upstairs to a bright and cozy little apartment, with the Spy caricature of Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley hanging in the bathroom and a complete set of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin novels on the bookshelves. I relaxed. I pointed to the O’Brien. John (as he insisted we call him) laughed. “I’ve read them all, four times, and I want to read them again. But the last time was only two years ago, so I’ll have to wait a bit, and I’m not sure I’ll make it.” He is straightforward about the debilities of age, and is hard of hearing. My experience with my equally deaf father –as well as my Italian habit of talking with my hands – helped to move our conversation along.
John made us coffee, and we sat around a coffee table scattered with issues of Science and Nature and talked with him for over an hour about his life, about Thompson, and about biology. John has published a lot of scientific papers – he had just submitted another one when we spoke with him — but unlike most scientists he has also written close to twenty books, including an autobiography that gives a wonderful overview of twentieth-century biology. His most recent book, published two years ago, was Randomness in Evolution. Three themes appeared over and over in our talk: the joy of good writing; the importance of good teachers; and why biologists need to keep the “big picture” in view.
John Bonner grew up in a literary and cultivated family; his father aspired to be an opera singer and later wrote for the New Yorker, and family friends included Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kauffmann, as well as Harpo Marx. I can’t help but think his appreciation and talent for writing came from this milieu; it seems much more likely that he would have become a writer, or a musician like his brother Anthony, than a biologist. But in fact he became both a writer and a biologist.
In his autobiography, John recalled that his father gave him a copy of The Science of Life in the early 1930s to lure him away from a narrow preoccupation with bird-watching. Written by H.G. Wells, his son G.P. Wells, and Julian Huxley, The Science of Life was an enormous (1500 pages) and enormously popular summary of all that was known about biology ca. 1930, including evolution, development, the germ theory of disease, and psychology. Written with H.G. Wells’s characteristic verve and clarity, it includes a chapter debunking theories of telepathy and clairvoyance that were popular in the 1920s. It also closes with the somewhat radical view for 1930 that learning is not something that one does only as a child but something that continues throughout one’s life.
The other book that proved to be a major influence was Thompson’s On Growth and Form, which John, then a graduate student, read shortly after the appearance of a second edition in 1942. John recalled that he was “overwhelmed” by it; all the young developmental biologists who read it in the 1940s loved it, he said, “but I loved it the most,” for its “magic combination of language and ideas.” Another enormous book – the 1942 edition was over 1100 pages – On Growth and Form touched on a number of topics, including the relationship between development and size that John later explored in Why Size Matters. Yet it is the “beauty of his prose” that John now remembers.
Whenever I wonder (which I do, often) if my teaching makes any difference, I will now refer to John’s account – both in our interview and in his autobiography – of the immense influence on him of William “Cap” Weston, who taught botany at Harvard (John’s assessments in his autobiography of some of his other teachers at Harvard are pretty scathing). Weston introduced John Bonner to the lower organisms with which he made his career, and supervised his Ph.D. work on slime molds. Why slime molds? Their unique life cycle made them ideal organisms to study development in the laboratory. They are single-celled amoebae (his book on them is titled The Social Amoebae) that feed first, then join together as a multicellular organism to reproduce. John recalled that, when he was a graduate student, the eminent embryologist Ross Harrison complimented him on his choice of organism. In John Bonner’s lab, slime molds became a prime instrument to explore the science of development. (In case you still think they’re boring, look at this nifty little video).
When John Bonner came to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1947 he was the eleventh member of a department of biology (“all men,” he said with a grimace). The molecular revolution sparked by the structure of DNA was still several years in the future. John told us he believed something had been lost in the transition to molecular explanations, and that perhaps reductionism was reaching its limit. “I’ve always been a big picture person,” he said, returning again to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a quintessential big picture man. The attraction of biology, he said, is in “the ensemble of things.” I am glad I had the chance to meet John Tyler Bonner: a delightful man, a brilliant scientist, and a great conversationalist.
Montpellier surgeon Barthélémy Cabrol (1529-1603) first published his Alphabet anatomic in 1594. A series of tables that graphically represented the parts of the body, it was immensely popular, with eleven editions in the seventeenth century as well as translations into Latin and Dutch; the Dutch translation in 1633 was by Descartes’s friend and correspondent Vopiscus Fortunatus Plemp. Cabrol was surgeon to King Henri IV and taught surgery at Montpellier’s famous medical school. The front matter to Alphabet anatomic included a dedication to the king, several prefaces, and a number of odes and sonnets, in French and Latin, to Cabrol and his skill in dissection. One of them praised his skill in uncovering the skeleton. Here it is, with thanks to Marc Schachter for help with the translation.
On his book of bones
He, who undertakes by the art of architecture
To erect for his descendants some beautiful building
In the first place always lays the foundation,
Being pushed to that, by nature herself.
In its state the edifice does not endure for long,
If the base, and the foundation are not very stable
That which is well founded retains longer
Its being, its beauty, its form, and its figure.
What Cabrol observes with his very expert fingers,
in the most beautiful structure of the entire universe,
He has reduced to an anatomy in a table
Writing in the first place the structure of the bones,
Which are the solid pilings of our body,
for which he makes himself above all admirable.
You could smell them before you saw them, what Raymond Chandler called “that peculiar tomcat smell,” so evocative of southern California. I did not expect to smell them in a forest in Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where I spent a week last September walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. But there they were, eucalyptus planted in neat rows. Trained to worship old growth, I viewed the eucalyptus as an abomination: non-native, highly flammable, unsustainable. The forests of Galicia are very far from old growth (what would that even mean in Europe? Neolithic?) . They have been planted and replanted for generations. Eucalyptus entered the scene, as it did in north Africa and California, in the nineteenth century. Imported from Australia, its rapid growth and hard wood made it a favored tree for plantation forestry. Moreover, the oil obtained from the leaves had medicinal uses. But that oil also makes the trees easy to burn: they explode when flames come close, as I knew too well after living twenty years in southern California. The frequent and devastating fires during Galicia’s hot summers are a consequence of a century and more of eucalyptus cultivation.
I recently began working on the history of the H.J. Andrews Forest Long-term Ecological Research site in Oregon. So when I was asked to give a talk on the “deep history” of ecological restoration for the Society for Ecological Restoration, I decided to look at forests, and started in the era I know best, the seventeenth century, and the inimitable John Evelyn (1620-1706), whose Sylva, first published in 1664, became a bible for foresters in Europe and in the new colonies in North America. What follows is a shorter version of that talk.
Restoration, to Evelyn,implied the return of the monarch to his rightful place as head of state and also had profound implications for the English landscape. Human damage to the land could be reversed and its hills and valleys once more made to bloom. Two widespread beliefs made such restoration possible: that history was cyclic rather than linear, and that an anthropomorphic God had originally made the earth in the image of a garden.
That original garden, Eden, was lost forever, but the garden or park had long been considered a means to approach it on earth. Evelyn envisioned a multi-pronged project he called the Elysium Britannicum. “Elysium” in classical mythology was a place of perfect happiness, the abode of the blessed after death. It would take the form of a garden, the “place of all terrestriall enjoyments the most resembling Heaven, and the best representation of our lost felicitie.” Evelyn’s idea of restoration as a human and spiritual exercise as well as a scientific one has, I believe, much to teach us. Caught between a notion of history as eternal cycles and one of inevitable progress, Evelyn employed the profoundly conservative notion of restoration to promote some radical ideas about the human role in nature. The notion that human actions could undo the malign impacts of earlier humans and bring nature back to a newly sustainable state is therefore neither as new nor as unique as many environmental historians believe.
Although England had been heavily forested in early medieval times – historians estimate that 60% of the land was forested at one time – even before the depredations of the Civil Wars, the forests of Britain had been seriously depleted. By the early sixteenth century, the only extensive forests in the south of England were those owned by the king: the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. In tough financial times in the early seventeenth century, kings cut down their trees and sold the timber. Many more trees were cut down during the Civil Wars to outfit Navies on both sides of the conflict. In addition, those loyal to the king paid heavy fines to the victorious Parliament in order to retain their estates, and they often paid them in timber.
The newly formed Royal Society considered the restoration of the nation’s trees in the early 1660s. Evelyn headed a committee on forests that resulted in the publication of Sylva, or a discourse of forest-trees. He wrote, “May such Woods as do yet remain intire be carefully Preserv’d, and such as are destroy’d, sedulously Repair’d.” This was a duty to God, to the state, and to past and future generations.
Evelyn recognized that, left to its own devices, nature could repair itself. If agriculture were abandoned for “some entire Ages” the forests could return. But what humans destroyed, humans could and should replace. It was better to plant trees than to wait for them to reappear. Oaks, the most useful of trees and laden with symbolism in British culture, were the most prominent but not the only trees that Evelyn recommended planting. Each tree had its particular place in the landscape, and each its particular use.
Evelyn did not restore for the sake of nature. The trees he planted would eventually be cut down, or their fruits harvested, or they would contribute to pleasing landscapes. He encouraged the ancient practice of coppicing – of managing the sprouts, shoots, and regrowth of cut trees – as a way of providing fuel and other wood products without cutting large trees. Yet he recognized that forests were not static, but dynamic; that old trees died and fell and rotted into earth. In this pre-evolutionary era, everything followed cycles: even stones could disintegrate and new ones formed.
Evelyn advocated a mixed landscape of many kinds of trees. He paid little attention to the young forest as a habitat for wild or domesticated animals; he saw many if not most of these as destructive to young trees and advised ways to repel mice, deer, and cattle. But a mature forest included these animals as well as pigs that fed on acorns and other nuts.
Evelyn clearly distinguished native from non-native trees, and he planted them alongside each other. His baseline, if we can call it that, was classical antiquity, which, before the age of exploration, was undoubtedly the era of greatest species dispersal. Educated in the classics, Evelyn turned to ancient naturalists to discover the variety and range of European trees, but found, as had many of his generation, that the ancients were not always right. Pliny had found the cypress to be too tender to grow in Britain, and to him, peaches and cherries were exotic delicacies from north Africa. Evelyn found that all of these grew quite well in Britain, as well as cedars and myrtles and even a cork tree. He argued, “Methinks it should rather encourage our Country-men to add yet to their Plantations other Forreign and useful Trees, and not in the least deter them, because many of them are not as yet become endenizon’d amongst us.”
Evelyn and his contemporaries did not view foreign species as invasive. Britain was part of Europe, its island status insufficient for biological isolation. But Britain was also part of a greater world; Evelyn also wished to “endenizon” the increasing flood of trees from the new world. He mentioned the acacia and the arbutus in Sylva, and more American trees appeared in subsequent editions. The distinctiveness of American flora and fauna evidenced the creativity and fecundity of God, and redistributing this evidence acknowledged that fecundity.
According to the cycles of nature and history, trees reached a peak of maturity and then declined and decayed. Therefore determining the time for harvest was critical. Oaks, for example, could take more than a century to mature. Evelyn devoted several chapters of Sylva to cutting trees down and forest products. Humans were not separate from this landscape, but integral to it, and cutting down trees was a much a part of the cycle of nature and husbandry as planting them. By the time Evelyn published the third edition of Sylva in 1679, he could claim that millions of trees had been planted in the intervening 15 years, owing to new laws promulgated by Charles II.
This edition included tables to calculate the board-feet of timber in a given tree as well as a lengthy discourse on sacred groves and the spiritual significance of trees. Eden, said Evelyn, was a forest, and so too is Paradise. Tree also had other advantages. His 1661 pamphlet Fumifugium, about air pollution in London (which he rightly attributed to the burning of coal), noted that trees helped to clean the air, and tree-planting might moderate the evils of the London fog. Sylva pointed out several other benefits of forests, including preserving rainwater, distributing moisture and nutrients, and mitigating the effects of hot climates. Jamaica and Barbados, he noted, had become hotter and drier since their trees were cut to make way for tobacco and sugar plantations.
Although forests had a clear economic value, Evelyn acknowledged multiple meanings: aesthetic, spiritual, and even what we might call ecological. He viewed forest restoration as an expression of the cycles of history and a responsibility to future generations. The “paradise” of the forest was divinely inspired but made by humans. They could destroy it but they could also re-create it. If we no longer believe in Eden, we still envisage some pristine past landscape without humans that we can aspire to. Evelyn gives us another way to look at the history of landscape, one in which humans play an inextricable role. He would see the eucalyptus of Galicia and Los Angeles as part of a global forest.