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 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.

Daubenton fig 1
Skeleton with rickets.  Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. I.   BNF


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.)

Daubenton fig viii
Histoire naturelle, tome III, Pl. VIII.  BNF

“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)

Histoire naturelle, tome III pg. 210.  BNF

(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.

Long Live the King

Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles
Louis XIV as Alexander the Great, Versailles

21 September 2014, Berlin

Louis XIV, who saw himself as the new Alexander the Great, adopted the lion as one of his symbols. Although he didn’t wear a lion skin on his head like Alexander, real and imaginary lions surrounded him.

Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l'histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Headpiece, Memoires pour servir a l’histoire naturelle des animaux, 1671
Historic distribution of Barbary and Asian Lions. Map by Peter Maas,

The lion long pre-dated Alexander as a symbol of power and majesty. On visits to two of Berlin’s many wonderful museums, I recorded just a few examples of the many appearances of the king of beasts in antiquity.  We think of lions as animals of sub-Saharan Africa.  But two sub-species of lions existed outside that region: the Barbary lion of North Africa (Panthera leo leo),

Barbary Lion 1893
Barbary Lion 1893

now extinct in the wild, and the Asian lion (Panthera leo persica), with perhaps 250 individuals now living in India.   These are the animals we see represented in antiquity.

Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE, Pergamon Museum
Scene from the Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BCE
Assyrian lion gate
Assyrian lion gate, Pergamon Museum
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE
Ishtar Gate, ca 575 BCE, Pergamon Museum
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century
Lionhead gargoyle, Miletus, 2nd century, Pergamon Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Roman sarcophagus, 300 CE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum
Architrave with two lion gods and Amon as a ram, Egypt, 200 BCE, Neues Museum

John Evelyn meets Raymond Chandler

800px-Eucalyptus_tereticornis_flowers,_capsules,_buds_and_foliageYou 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.JohnEvelyn 1687

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 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.  oak2

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 fumifugiumburning 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.

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.  ostrich Ostriches had first made the long journey from Africa to Paris in the early seventeenth century; the young Louis XIII’s “volière” or bird enclosure at Fontainebleau included them as well as storks, cranes, eagles, herons, and cormorants.  The anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney had dissected an ostrich at the salon of the Abbé Pierre Michon Bourdelot in the late 1660s, before the Paris Academy of Sciences dissected one of the Versailles birds in 1671.  There were dozens at any time at Versailles, although they did not come cheap; Colbert’s animal buyer Monier spent 330 livres to buy 11 ostriches in Alexandria in 1679, and another 600 livres to transport them from Marseille to Paris on special carts.  Their corpses also required special carts to be transported to the Academy for dissection.  Between 1687 and 1694, over 100 of the giant birds made their way to the menagerie, and around 1700 they had their own quartier there.  The Academy even received ostrich eggs from Versailles which they attempted, unsuccessfully, to incubate.

Ostriches have continued to fascinate naturalists and artists.  The beautiful book on the Versailles menagerie by Gérard Mabille and Joan Pieragnoli features several paintings by the menagerie’s resident artist Pieter Boel, including this one of ostriches which wonderfully captures their ungainly beauty. cropwm As Boel captured the ostrich in paint, so the American poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) captured it in words, in her 1941 poem “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron’.”  Her title comes from John Lyly’s Euphues but recalls Duverney’s discovery of over seventy coins in the craw of one of the ostriches he dissected.  Here is the poem, from

He “Digesteth Harde Yron”  by Marianne Moore

   Although the aepyornis

or roc that lived in Madagascar, and

the moa are extinct,

the camel-sparrow, linked

with them in size–the large sparrow

Xenophon saw walking by a stream–was and is

a symbol of justice.

This bird watches his chicks with

a maternal concentration-and he’s

been mothering the eggs

at night six weeks–his legs

their only weapon of defense.

He is swifter than a horse; he has a foot hard

as a hoof; the leopard

is not more suspicious.  How

could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young

used even as a riding-beast, respect men

hiding actor-like in ostrich skins, with the right hand

making the neck move as if alive

and from a bag the left hand strewing grain, that ostriches

might be decoyed and killed!  Yes, this is he

whose plume was anciently

the plume of justice; he

whose comic duckling head on its

great neck revolves with compass-needle nervousness

when he stands guard,

in S-like foragings as he is

preening the down on his leaden-skinned back.

The egg piously shown

as Leda’s very own

from which Castor and Pollux hatched,

was an ostrich-egg.  And what could have been more fit

for the Chinese lawn it

grazed on as a gift to an

emperor who admired strange birds, than this

one, who builds his mud-made

nest in dust yet will wade

in lake or sea till only the head shows.

.       .       .       .       .       .       .

Six hundred ostrich-brains served

at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent

and desert spear, jewel-

gorgeous ugly egg-shell

goblets, eight pairs of ostriches

in harness, dramatize a meaning

always missed by the externalist.

The power of the visible

is the invisible; as even where

no tree of freedom grows,

so-called brute courage knows.

Heroism is exhausting, yet

it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare

the harmless solitaire

or great auk in its grandeur;

unsolicitude having swallowed up

all giant birds but an alert gargantuan

little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.

This one remaining rebel

is the sparrow-camel.

The “camel-sparrow,” (Struthio camelus), and its apparent ability to ingest metal, as the Abbeville Press blog explained a few years ago, was well known in medieval bestiaries.