Tag Archives: medicine

Frederik Ruysch’s Anatomical Art

Post contributed by Amelia Holmes, Josiah Charles Trent Intern for the History of Medicine Collections.

Anatomical specimens emerged as an art form near the end of the seventeenth century. Although they may seem morbid today, at the time of creation, they were viewed as striking a balance between the scientific and the artistic. They served to educate people on human anatomy as well as to remind them of the fleeting nature of life.

Illustration from Opera Omnia Anatomico-Medico-Chirurgica, ca. 1737.
Illustration from Opera Omnia Anatomico-Medico-Chirurgica, ca. 1737.

One of the more notable creators of anatomical art is Frederik Ruysch, a Dutch botanist and anatomist who lived from 1638 to 1731—an impressive 93 years in a time when many died young. A capable researcher, Ruysch was the first to describe bronchial blood vessels, the vascular plexus of the heart, and the valves of the lymphatics. However, his real interest lay in anatomical preparations, and he has been described by a recent biographer as “probably the most skilled and knowledgeable preparator in the history of anatomy” (Gould, p. 20). Ruysch served as the chief instructor to midwives and the “legal doctor” to the court of Amsterdam. Through these positions, he had easy (and legal) access to the bodies of stillborns and dead babies.

The preparations were initially created to use in his classes, but they eventually gained an interest from the public. To showcase his vast collection (he created more than 2,000 from 1665 to 1717 alone), he opened his own cabinet of curiosities to the public, which for many marked the first time they were able to see human internal organs. The collection was also noteworthy because of the lengths to which Ruysch went in an effort to make the specimens appear more natural. For example, embalmed children were clothed or held bouquets of preserved flowers. In 1717, Peter the Great, who was an admirer of Ruysch, purchased the entire cabinet of curiosities for 30,000 guilders. The collection was then shipped to St. Petersburg, and along with the cabinet of curiosities formed by Albertus Seba, they became the core of the Kunstkammer—the Academy of Sciences of Russia’s first public museum.

Although a number of Ruysch’s wet preparations still exist today (a fact which he would find unsurprising), none of his dry specimens have been located. He used fetal skeletons and other body parts to create multi-specimen scenes. These scenes served as the centerpieces for each of the literal cabinets within the rooms of his museum. As Gould points out, these tableaux were focused on allegorical themes such as death and the transience of life. The small skeletons are decorated with symbols of death and short life: mayflies rest in hands, skulls weep into handkerchiefs made of mesentery, and snakes made of intestine wine their way through bones. Today, these still-life scenes exist for us only through second-hand descriptions and, fortunately, through a number of engravings.

Fortunately for those interested in seeing these illustrations up close, the History of Medicine Collections has two volumes from the multi-volume Opera omnia anatomico-medico-chirurgica. On October 29, from 2-4 pm, they will be on display as part of Screamfest in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room.

Recommended Reading:

Upcoming Trent Lecture on Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis

Date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Time: 3:00 p.m.
Location: Room 217, Perkins Library
Contact: Rachel Ingold, rachel.ingold@duke.edu or (919) 684-8549

Dr. Ignaz SemmelweisPlease join us on Wednesday, February 25, at 3 p.m. for our next Trent History of Medicine lecture. Constance Putnam, Ph.D, will present “A Revisionist View of the Semmelweis Story.”

Dr. Putnam has spent several years reviewing the story of Ignaz Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century Hungarian physician and leading proponent of antisepsis. Problematizing a story that many historians think they know is a complex and special challenge, though there is evidence that Semmelweis was more than the ‘hand-washing guy.’ He had a very full, though brief, career as part of a vital and impressive medical community—a part of the tale that is generally ignored.

Dr. Putnam is a medical history researcher and writer from Concord, Massachusetts. Dr. Putnam was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to visit Budapest in 2005-2006. Since then, she has returned many times, learning Hungarian in order to make use of several archives.

This event is sponsored by the History of Medicine Collections.

Post contributed by Rachel Ingold, Curator of the History of Medicine Collections.

An African American Surgeon in the U.S. Civil War: Talk by Dr. Margaret Humphreys

Date: Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Time: 12:00 PM
Location: Room 102, Duke Medical Center Library
Contact: Beverly Murphy, beverly.murphy@duke.edu

Dr. Margaret HumphreysPlease join us on Wednesday, June 18 at noon for a lecture by Dr. Margaret Humphreys titled “Finding Dr. Harris: an African American Surgeon in the U.S. Civil War.” The event will be held in Room 102 of the Duke University Medical Center Library. Lunch will be provided.

Dr. Humphreys is the Josiah Charles Trent Professor of the History of Medicine and Professor of Medicine at Duke University and current President of the American Association for the History of Medicine. She is the author most recently of Marrow of Tragedy: The Health Crisis of the American Civil War (Johns Hopkins University Press); a book for which she was a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize—awarded annually for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War era.

Dr. Humphreys’ talk coincides with several exhibits at the Duke Medical Library. From June 9 through July 19, 2014, the Medical Library & Archives will host the National Library of Medicine’s travelling exhibit Binding Wounds, Pushing Boundaries: African Americans in Civil War Medicine. The lower level of the Medical Library includes an exhibition on Civil War medicine, highlighting many materials from the History of Medicine Collections and Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library on display through September of 2014.

Dr. Humphreys talk is co-sponsored by the Duke University Medical Center Library & Archives and the History of Medicine Collections in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. For questions about the event, please contact Beverly Murphy at beverly.murphy@duke.edu or (919) 660-1127.


Welcome to Blogging, Medical Center Archives!

Illustration from the Malcolm Tyor Papers, Duke University Medical Center Archives.
From the Malcolm Tyor Papers, Duke University Medical Center Archives.

This morning, we’re sending best wishes to our friends at the Duke University Medical Center Archives, who have just entered the blogosphere!

Visit their new blog for stories about the history of the DUMC community; interesting images, artifacts, and documents from their collections (like the illustration at right); and information about their resources, services, news, and events.

Recent posts include:

All illustrated with great finds from the Medical Center Archives’ collections.

Look for new posts every other week! Happy blogging, y’all!


New Acquisitions: Unique Depictions of the Human Body

In June and July we’re celebrating the beginning of a new fiscal year by highlighting new acquisitions from the past year. All of these amazing resources will be available for today’s scholars, and for future generations of researchers in the Rubenstein Library! Today’s post features a new collection in the Library’s History of Medicine Collections. Check out additional posts in the series here.

fugitive sheet female

The History of Medicine Collections has acquired two anatomical fugitive sheets, elevating our holdings to now include ten of these magnificent items. Anatomical fugitive sheets are single sheets, similar to broadsides, that are printed on one side. Illustrations of the human body accompany text that was written in Latin, and later in the vernacular. Dating from the sixteenth century, this pair of fugitive sheets, titled Viscerum hoc Est Interiorum Corporis Humani Partium Descriptio and published in Antwerp in the sixteenth century, includes hand colored illustrations with accompanying text in Latin.

Besides being incredibly rare—these are the only known copies of these sheets—the sheets are noteworthy for many reasons, including the depiction of the human body using three-dimensional flaps that lift to reveal internal organs, as the title suggests.  This particular pair of fugitive sheets has lost most of its flaps. While the male figure only retains a fragment of one flap, the female figure retains one full flap of the inner organs in entirety. Such loss is common since most of these fugitive sheets date to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were printed as single sheets.

Theories abound as to who would own such items. Were they created for physicians, barber surgeons, or the lay person wanting to know more about the human body? Were they hung in apothecaries, medical university classrooms, or the gentleman’s library? Any sheets that remain today are incredibly rare and worthy of study and analysis. These appeal not only to the medical student who wants to see what inaccuracies exist, but to those interested in the history of science, printing history, and art history.

Post contributed by Rachel Ingold, Curator, History of Medicine Collections.

The Henkel Physicians Exhibit at the Medical Center Library & Archives

Dates: July 15, 2013-August 24, 2013 (NLM exhibit); July 15, 2013-October 31, 2013 (MCLA/Rubenstein exhibit)
Location: Medical Center Library & Archives (see below for details)
Online Exhibit Companion: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/digicolls/henkel/
Contact Information: Jolie Braun, jolie.braun[at]duke.edu; Beverly Murphy, beverly.murphy[at]duke.edu

Advertisement for products sold by the Henkel physicians, from the Shenandoah Valley newspaper, 7 September 1877.
Advertisement for products sold by the Henkel physicians, from the Shenandoah Valley newspaper, 7 September 1877.

The Medical Center Library & Archives is excited to announce its new exhibit, “The Henkel Physicians: A Family’s Life in Letters.” Produced by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the exhibit traces the daily lives of a family of physicians in the Shenandoah Valley during the nineteenth century, serving in their community, on the battleground, and in the nation’s courts of law. 

The Medical Center Library also collaborated with the Rubenstein Library on an exhibit to complement the NLM display. “From the Rubenstein Collections: The Henkel Family Physicians” features rare books and manuscripts along with materials from the History of Medicine Collections.  It includes letters written by the Henkels, books and broadsides published by the Henkel Press, and nineteenth-century medical instruments and artifacts.

The NLM Exhibit will be on display through August 24th on Level 3 of the Medical Center Library & Archives. The Medical Center Library and Rubenstein collaboration will available through October on Level 1. To learn more about the Henkel family and nineteenth-century medicine, visit the NLM’s digital companion to the display.

Controversy vs. Benefits: Vivisection Items in the History of Medicine Collections

As a volunteer for the History of Medicine (HOM) Collections, one of my projects was to create subject guides for several of the Collections’ strengths. I focused on collection strengths in areas of anesthesia, human sexuality, materia medica, pediatrics, psychiatry, vivisection, and yellow fever. I spent the past few weeks gathering sources and images to highlight the HOM’s interesting collection of vivisection materials, many of which come from the large vivisection pamphlet collection.

A significant amount of the collection features philosophical debates between those who regard surgery on live animals for experimental purposes as cruelty and those who support vivisection for benefits stemming from progress and advancements in medical science (e.g., creation of immunizations and vaccines).

Many photographs and drawings in the vivisection pamphlet collection show how dogs were used as test subjects for medical experiments. In one photograph, it is evident from its posture that a dog that had its pituitary gland removed is undergoing discomfort; the image was taken hours before its death. In another drawing, a dog appears to have had its hind legs bound and one of its forelegs sealed. The caption underneath reads, “They who know the pain of a limb even a short time in a cramped position can imagine the sufferings of this dog.”


On the other hand, animal experimentation has played a crucial role in helping to develop immunizations against infectious diseases, such as polio and diphtheria. The photographs below feature children whose lives were saved by antitoxin discovered through medical research using animals. In an attempt to appeal to people’s emotions and gain acceptance for animal experimentation, one of the captions contains a suggestion for others to imagine their own child as one of the pictured victims of infantile paralysis. The question is asked, “Would you hesitate to sacrifice under ether one or more animals if through the knowledge gained the disease could have been prevented, or your child could have recovered without being crippled?”









The vivisection controversy brings up other provocative questions: Is animal experimentation justifiable if it results in the possibility of a cure/immunization/vaccine for a disease (e.g., cancer, HIV/AIDS)? Do the benefits of eradicating diseases for humans outweigh the suffering and pain caused to animals in medical research? Does the use of anesthesia make vivisection more acceptable? Are there parallels between animal vivisection and human vivisection as historically conducted by the Nazi and Imperial Japanese armies? Come examine the materials in the History of Medicine Collections and develop your own conclusions.

Post contributed by Christine Cheng, former volunteer for the History of Medicine Collections. Christine is now the Research Services Coordinator for George Mason University Libraries Special Collections & Archives.

New Acquisitions Week, Day Five: Exploring Africa

We’re celebrating the beginning of a new fiscal year with a week’s worth of new acquisitions from the first half of 2012.  Two newly acquired selections have been featured in a post every day this week.  All of these amazing resources are available for today’s scholars, and for future generations of researchers in the Rubenstein Library!

  • Livio Sanuto, Geografia: This work, published in 1588 in Venice, is the first edition of the first printed atlas of Africa.  It contains twelve double-page engraved maps showing the continent; for its date, the maps are surprisingly detailed and accurate, correcting many of the earlier errors in French and German maps.  Nevertheless, Sanuto also kept many preconceived European notions about Africa, and introduced new errors in the text of the atlas, making the work a fascinating case study of European views of Africa in the sixteenth century.  The work is foundational for the study of European depictions of Africa, and will be a cornerstone for African collections in the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African-American History and Culture.
Map of southern Africa, from Livio Sanuto, Geografia (1588).
  • Ezekiel Skinner Papers: Ezekiel Skinner (1777-1855) was a missionary and physician who worked in Monrovia, Liberia for the American Colonization Society during the 1830s. Although almost 60 years old, Skinner believed it was his duty to continue the work of his son, Benjamin Rush Skinner (named for the famous physician Benjamin Rush, under whom Ezekiel had studied), who had died in Liberia a few years before. The papers contain correspondence and other documents written by Dr. Skinner during his time in Liberia, including a description of a “slave factory” and other details of the slave trade, and discussion of medical treatment of Liberian colonists, including treatment of a fellow doctor, the African-American Charles Webb.  The Skinner papers enrich the collections of both the John Hope Franklin Research Center and the History of Medicine Collections.

Previous posts:

A Humble Petition from 1864

Greeting from 1864 Petition to Jefferson Davis from the Citizens of Cripple Creek, VA

Working on the History of Medicine (HOM) Trent Manuscripts Grant Project has revealed quite a few items of interest—but most recently, I discovered something that fits rather well into the Memories of the Civil War exhibit currently on display in the Perkins Exhibit Gallery.

Signatures to the 1864 Petition from the Citizens of Cripple Creek.
Signatures to the 1864 Petition from the Citizens of Cripple Creek. From the Trent Manuscripts Collection.

You may have seen the grisly amputation kit from the HOM collection, which might be the kind of war-related artifact that you would expect out of a collection on the history of medicine.  But here, instead, is not an example of progressive advances in medicine, nor a relic of past practice: instead, a simple plea for a family doctor to remain in service to his community by being excused for service in the Confederate Army:

“We the undersigned Citizens of Cripple Creek, Wythe County, VA earnestly petition that our family physician, Dr. C. C. Campbell, who is a conscript under the late act of Congress and whose services are indispensable to this portion of the county, be exempt, or detailed, and left with us.”

This singular petition to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, dated February 15, 1864, was accompanied by two pages of signatures by the residents of Cripple Creek.  Did it ever reach its destination?  Do any historians or local residents know the fate of Dr. C. C. Campbell and his patients in Cripple Creek, Virginia?  If so, we’d love to hear from you!

Jacqueline Chapman, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, was History of Medicine Intern at the Rubenstein Library from September 2011 to January 2012.