The Corpse Walk: Paris, 1660

[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, …

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Vesalius and the beheaded man

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 …

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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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The biologist in the ashram (with a walk-on by Harpo Marx)

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, …

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A Sonnet to an Anatomist

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 …

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John Evelyn meets Raymond Chandler

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, …

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An Ostrich for the New Year

Aristotle had not been entirely certain that the ostrich was a bird, but it took pride of place among the birds in the Versailles menagerie and in the 1676 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux.   Ostriches had first made the long journey from Africa to Paris in the early seventeenth century; the young …

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Montmor’s House

Paris, 26 November 2013 This morning I decided to find Montmor’s house.  Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor (1603-1679) was the Master of Requests for  Louis XIII and XIV, and ran a much-fabled scientific salon from his home in the 1650s and 60s.  His hôtel still stands at the edge of the Marais at 79 rue du …

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The Ghastly Kitchen

Next month, I'll be giving a talk at the International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (ICHSTM) in Manchester, UK.  I recently blogged about it on the conference blog: In 1865, the physiologist Claude Bernard described the life sciences as “a superb and dazzlingly lighted hall which may be reached only by passing …

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