by Piter Kehoma Boll
Today we celebrate the 380th birthday of the Dutch botanist and anatomist Frederik Ruysch, seen by some as an astonishing artist and by others as a creepy scientist.
Born in 1638 in The Hague, Frederik Ruysch was the son of a government functionary. After the death of his father, he became apprentice to an apothecary. Early in his life, he developed an interest in anatomy and went to the university in Leiden to study anatomy under Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672). At that time, it was difficult to get corpses to dissect, so Ruysch started to study ways to prepare the organs in order to preserve them.
In 1661, he married Maria Post, the daughter of the architect Pieter Post (1608-1669). In 1664, he graduated with a dissertation on pleuritis. In 1667, he became the praelector of the Amsterdam surgeon’s guild and in 1668 the chief instructor of the city’s midwives, which demanded them to be examined by him before being allowed to practice their profession. About a decade later, in 1879, he became a forensic advisor to the Amsterdam courts.
Another of Ruysch’s interest was botany and in 1685 he was appointed as a professor of botany in the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, working with Jan (1629-1692) and Caspar Commelin (1668-1731), specializing on indigenous plants.
Ruysch made significant scientific contributions to the field of anatomy, having discovered, for example, the vomeronasal organ in snakes and the valves in the lymphatic system.
However, what really made Ruysch famous was his anatomical museum created in the late 1600s. Known simply as the Cabinet, the museum consisted of a series of small houses that Ruysch filled with more than 2000 preserved specimens, including many human embryos and fetuses.
The preservation techniques used were of different types, but the most sofisticated ones consisted of injecting the vascular systems of the corpses with a special red-tinted wax and then submerging them in an embalming fluid. This technique allowed him to manipulate the specimens more easily and arrange them in ways that were anatomically accurate and to give the impression of life. As the museum was open to both scientists and laypeople, he considered the impact that the material would have on people and tried to give it an artistic look. He was helped by his daughter, the painter Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). Some of his specimens were organized in elaborate scenes using pieces of plants, animals or even body parts such as bones and kidney stones.
In 1697, the Russian tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) visited Ruysch’s collection and became fascinated by it. Later, in 1717, during a second visit, the tsar bought the entire collection and took it with him to Russia. Ruysch refused to help packing and labeling everything, possibly as a way to reduce the emotional struggle caused by having to give his entire work away, but soon after he began anew.
Ruysch died in 1731, aged 92. About 900 of his displays have survived until the present, being considered pieces of art.
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The Embryo Project Encyclopedia. The Cabinet of Frederik Ruysch. Available at < https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/cabinet-frederik-ruysch >. Access on March 26, 2018.
Wikipedia. Frederik Ruysch. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederik_Ruysch >. Access on March 26, 2018.