De anatomische preparaten van Frederik Ruysch

Ruysch, an Enlightened scientist

A twig with a fleece, prepared with his own blood after a blood-letting. Thes VII. TAB 3. Fig. 6

A small arm, wrapped in a cloth with fringes, shows us a sort of skin, fabricated by Ruysch himself slowly stirring pig's blood. Ruysch covered the liquid filled bottle with a piece of human skin that coloured the lid a beautiful red. The small veins he had prepared with red wax. 'this not only being pleasant for the eyes, but also useful for those who want to see the course of the Arteries accurately'.

The scientist Frederik Ruysch used methods that were characteristic for New Science and the Enlightenment. Glancing through the guides to his specimens, the Thesauri anatomici, it is easy to find proof for the fact that Ruysch practised New Science as an Enlightened medical doctor.

Bacon as beacon

New Science was opposed to Aristotle's Old Science. While Aristotle reasoned to find explanations for physical phenomena, the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) proposed a new method of controllable experiments. In order to achieve this he proposed a international organization of science. Researchers had to gather as much facts as possible and exchange them and only then draw their conclusions from them.

Francis Bacon had been dead for 12 years when Ruysch was born, but his research program was still very challenging. In Russia a scientist, Jacob Bruce, owned a copy of a 1733 reprint of Bacons philosophical works with an overview of what had already been carried out from his program for the advancement of the sciences. Ruysch too carried out one of the assignements of Bacon's program as can be found in Francis Bacon, The advancement of learning [1605]. Second book, X.5. Ruysch researched the problem through which cavities body fluids were transported and were these were stored.

Enlightenment versus devil and belief

Enlightenment is opposed to darkness and ignorance. One of the new insights in the Early Dutch enlightenment was that reality could only be understood, by studying that reality itself. Using this method fear (for instance for the devil) and beliefs (for instance in a life after death) could be diminished and knowledge was able to grow. To achieve this you had to use your own mind. Using reason, always based on observations, it was possible to put old truths to the test and if necessary question them.

This new method of reasoning appealed especially to medical doctors. Ruysch was of the opinion traditional methods and techniques in the medical profession held little relevance. He encouraged colleagues to trust their own eyes: Learn to look by yourself and lay aside the outdated manuals and the texts of the highly esteemed Ancients. (The writers on medical science from Antiquity).

Proof for keeps

Since 1696 Ruysch had been publishing new discoveries, he displayed at his home, because he had discovered a method to make bodies of dead people appear alive. He used specimen because 'they showed more than deceased bodies'. In a corpse organs would collapse, in his specimens he saw to it that the organs kept their shape. In his publications he often added a drawing of a specimen to enlighten his new found insights.

Come and look

In Thesaurus VI Ruysch describes that colleagues doubted his most important discovery, that the cerebral cortex consisted of blood vessels, and did certainly not consist of glands. Ruysch writes: 'Come and look at a piece of the barky substance of the human brain, consisting entirely of blood vessels'. Those who doubted this he could not give belief, but he could give 'the sight of it, let all come to me, on a clear day, no one will be refused to take a look'.

Ruysch thus used the writing pen next to the drawing pen to convince his colleagues. And those who still did not believe him, he wellcomed to his house, where the specimen would serve as proof.

Ruysch easily admitted his mistakes

When British doctor William Harvey (1578-1657) presented his description of the circulation of the blood, overthrowing earlier theories, and thus made a fool out of his colleagues, he spoke to them in his introduction. It was a virtue to reconsider one's views. He assured them this was a wise thing to do not a stupid one. Ruysch had, in a sense, taken these encouraging words to heart. He saw no problem in revoking earlier suppositions. In several places in his Thesauri Ruysch admitted he had made mistakes earlier. To the reader he points out the incorrect suppositions and assertions and he corrects them. In Thesaurus VI for instance, he admits that the placenta was smaller than contended before. He had found out that it was not a big placenta, but clotted blood, that made the placenta look big.

Superstitious midwives

Ruysch not only discussed these things with colleagues, but also with midwives, who were under the spell of superstitions. Midwives attributed supernatural powers to the small darkly coloured monster you would sometimes find in the womb of women in childbed. Ruysch tried to find natural causes for this horrifying little monstrosity. Ruysch kept a small placenta in his collection, the form of a pear, that as he wrote, people believed to be a sucker, a flying object, a monster that flew into childbearing women's vaginas. Ruysch prepared a few of these suckers. The specimens Thes.VI,98, Thes.XI,31 and Thes.XI,198 also were suckers.

Ruysch prepares his own suckers

To reinforce his proof, Ruysch prepared suckers from his own blood. He describes how he stirred the fluid, and how between the twig and it's leaves the blood clotted well and resembled a fleece like creature. Ruysch prepared several specimen out of his own blood, as you can see in Thes. VII, 39 where he remarks: 'If you see the blood deforming once it is out of the blood vessels, it is easy to see that blood in the vagina or the cervix would become thick and tough. Yes, some people were fooled by this in such a way as that they want us to think the clotted matter is some kind of monster.'

Jozien J. Driessen van het Reve, Historian, Amsterdam, The Netherlands