A Brill Calendar: March 23
Frederik Ruysch: A Life
Few medical disciplines reflect progress of Western learning as strikingly as anatomy.
With Andries van Wesel (‘Andreas Vesalius’) and his ‘De humani corporis fabrica libri septem’ (1543) – ‘Seven Books on the Structure of the Human Body’ – for a mile-stone and place of departure, subsequent technological developments continue to run in parallel; from invention in the Low Countries of the microscope early in the 17th century to discovery of the DNA structure of biological life in England, more than three centuries later.
The life & times of Frederik Ruysch (The Hague, March 23 1638 – Amsterdam, February 22, 1731) fit this perspective to a fault. Graduating in Leyden as Medical Doctor, Ruysch became general practitioner and soon thereafter, in 1666, ‘Praelector’ for Anatomy at the ‘Athenaeum Illustre’, Amsterdam’s High School. In 1679, he became Professor of Botany as well. His genius, in the eye of contemporaries rested on a virtuoso dexterity in dissecting anatomical specimens and injecting vascular structures with contrasting fluids, allowing observation in striking detail. The story of diagnostic technologies and techniques in medicine stalks modern physics; see also Röntgen’s radiation and Becquerel’s radio-activity.
Anatomy and public anatomical lessons after the Renaissance are associated with amazement & glamour, as subject-matter good for a distinct picturesque genre. Two paintings with Frederik Ruysch in action have been preserved; by two minor masters, Adriaen Backer (1635 – 1684) and Johan van Neck (1636 – 1714); Rembrandt’s rendering of Professor Tulp (1632) was the inception of a fascinating tradition. It is seldom that specific academic practices inspire artists as subject matter.
Ruysch’s immense array of preserved specimens was a ‘must-see’ for distinguished visitors in Holland; the first Tsar, Peter the Great, being among them. Visiting this Western country twice – in 1698 and 1717 – he purchased eventually the entire collection, in the hope of modernizing medical education in the Romanov Empire.