Tag Archives: Dutch scientists

Whose Wednesday: Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt

by Piter Kehoma Boll

This week we stick once more with the 18th century, starting in Europe but moving to the other side of the world.

Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt was born on 5 June 1773 in Lüttringhausen, which is currently part of Germany. He was the son of Johann George Reinwardt and Katharina Goldenberg. Soon after he was born, his family moved to Remscheid. His father was his first teacher, but he died when Reinwardt was still young. His older brother, Johann Christoph Matthias Reinwardt, moved to Amsterdam after their father died and started to work at a pharmacy. In 1787, Caspar moved to Amsterdam as well and started as an apprentice in the same pharmacy. There, he met several scientists, including the botanist Gerardus Vrolik.

A young Caspar Reinwardt. Portrait by M. J. van Brée and R. Vinkeles. Date unknown.

Settled in Amsterdam, Reinwardt studied chemistry and botany at the Athenaeum Illustre, a school sometimes referred to as the predecessor of the University of Amsterdam, but that did not allow someone to achieve a degree. Nevertheless, Reinwardt developed skills in chemistry, medicine and botany and was, thus, offered the position of professor of natural history at the University of Harderwijk in 1800. Due to his abilities as a professor, the academic senate gave him an honorary doctorate in 1801.

In 1806, Amsterdam became part of the Kingdom of Holland, a puppet kingdom set up by the emperor Napoleón Bonaparte to his younger brother Louis Bonaparte, who was made king. Appealing to Louis in 1808, Reinwardt was offered the work as director of the botanical and zoological gardens that were to be built. That same year, he became a member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.

In 1810, Reinwardt became a professor in Amsterdam. Only three years later, in 1813, the Netherlands regained their independence from France and were interested in re-establish contact with their colonies. Reinwardt was asked to take over the Royal Comission for the Colonies as head of agriculture, arts and science. As a result, he traveled to the Dutch East Indies (current Indonesia) in 1816 and conducted several botanical investigations throughout the islands. In 1817, he founded the Buitenzorg (now Bogor) Botanical Gardens in Java and became their first director. During the following years, he gathered many plant specimens and sent them to Europe, but most of them were lost in shipwrecks.

An older Caspar Reinwardt. Author and year unknown.

With the death of the botanist Sebald Justinus Brugmans in 1819, the position of professor of natural history at the University of Leiden was empty and Reinwardt was appointed to take it. However, he was allowed to remain in the Dutch East Indies until 1821. Returning in 1822, he started as professor of natural history in 1823. At the University of Leiden, he devoted the rest of his life to chemistry, botany and mineralogy.

Reinwardt retired in 1845 and died on 6 March 1854, aged 80.

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Wikipedia. Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt. Available at < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caspar_Georg_Carl_Reinwardt >. Access on 4 June 2019.

Wikipedia (in German). Kaspar Georg Karl Reinwardt. Available at < https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaspar_Georg_Karl_Reinwardt >. Access on 4 June 2019.

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Whose Wednesday: Frederik Ruysch

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.


Anatomische les van Dr. Frederik Ruysch, by Jan van Neck, 1683.

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.


Frederik Ruysch in 1694, by Juriaen Pool.

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.


One of Ruysch’s scenes drawn by Cornelius Huyberts in 1721.

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.

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