A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

*This blog originally appeared on the Recipes Project on 9 March 2017*

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections. 

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

Preserving and modelling the body: technique in anatomical practice and visual arts at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 1700-1850

A guest blog I wrote for The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) Library and Archive – looking forward to this project very much!

The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd) Library and Archive

Our guest blog post is from Marieke Hendriksen, a postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University. Marieke will be joining us in October here at the RCSEd Library and Archive on a Wellcome Trust Research Bursary. Her research is a study on practices and resources used by the members of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, to preserve and make models of the human body in the period 1700-1850. Look out for related events and future blogs!

The art of modelling [in plaster] trenches upon that of the artist, and, as everyone knows, is practiced by a number of persons as an art. Professors of this branch of science are in every large city, and I recommend to do as I did, viz. visit the studio of the artificer in stucco. All in this line in Edinburgh, at least, I found most communicative, and happy at all times to explain everything, and much more of…

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Google NGram for early modern history?

Last month, I started a new job at Utrecht University within the ERC funded project ARTECHNE. One of the things I try to figure out in my subproject, The Term ‘Technique’ in the History of the Arts and Sciences, 1500-1950, is when and why a term like ‘technique’ first started occuring in the vernacular to describe artistic skills (instead of only in Latin to describe any process of skilfully making or doing something, as was the case before the eighteenth-century). Of course this can be done by studying primary sources one by one, but searching large amounts of historical  texts semi-automatically could be a great help. However, Digital Humanities methods like data mining do require caution, as Pim Huijnen also describes in this excellent blog.

Book scanning at the University of Michigan, one of the libraries participating in Google Books

I soon saw this confirmed when I started experimenting with Google Books NGram Viewer (GNV), and figured it might be interesting for other early modern historians to share my experience. In theory GNV is amazing for analysis of historical texts, and for research that focuses on post-1800 texts , this is true to some extent, as described here. As Wikipedia puts it, GNV ‘is an online search engine that charts frequencies of any set of comma-delimited search strings using a yearly count of n-grams found in sources printed between 1500 and 2008.’ An n-gram is an instance of a word or phrase within a corpus; n is a variable representing the number of words.[1] In other words, GNV counts how often a word or a combination of words occurs in the digitized printed sources available in Google Books in any given year between 1500 and 2008 and visualizes that in a nice chart. Google Books contains over 25 million titles and GNV works for those in American English, British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese, so in theory it would be a great way to figure out when the term ‘technique’, or a combination of words like ‘art’ and ‘technology’ first occurred in European languages, and how it spread.

However, there are a couple of reasons that this does not work for early modern printed works (roughly 1500-1800). First of all, the majority of the books on Google Books are not from this period, but from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A lot of early modern sources relevant for my research are simply not on Google Books. Second, old books are often printed in unusual and irregular fonts, which are hard to recognize for OCR (Optical Character Recognition software). This leads to a lot of misses (i.e. the combination of the terms ‘art’ and ‘technique’ does occur but does not come up in the GNV because the OCR does not recognize one or both words), but also to a lot of false positives (i.e. GNV ‘recognizes’ a word, but when you go to the source, it turns out it is a an OCR misread, or a source is dated wrong).

To give an example: I tried using GNV to see when the word ‘Technik’ starts to occur in German in Google Books. This is what the resulting ngram looks like:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 13.21.10

The upward line after 1800 is fairly reliable; sources printed after this date are generally suitable for OCR. However, before 1800 it is a different story. The three ‘peaks’ between 1650 and 1750 seem rather random – and if you start analysing them, it soon turns out they are. At the bottom of the screen, you can click some of the periods in which GNV shows the term you searched for occurs. When you follow the link to the results for 1500-1727, it turns out that all these results are documents that are dated incorrectly in Google Books:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 11.32.11

When you click the first result that actually has a document attached to it (the third result here), it turns out that the word ‘Technik’ here occurs not in a late sixteenth century book, but in a 1925 newspaper article that somehow ended up in the same file as a sixteenth century Italian book:

Schermafdruk 2016-03-11 11.28.47.png

On closer inspection, every supposed occurrence of ‘Technik’ between 1500 and 1727 turns out to be a case of a wrongly dated document or an OCR misread. For the period 1728-1800 (you can manually adjust the period), the results are slightly more reliable, but a quick look at the results shows that the most common occurrence is not around the middle of the eighteenth century, as GNV suggests, but the last decade of the century, mostly in work related to Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft.

So although I can use GNV and especially a period-limited search in Google Books to partly back up my initial hunch about the emergence of the term ‘Technik’ in German (namely that it is first used in Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft), it is not a reliable way to say how often a certain term occurs in digitized sources on Google Books from before 1800. That does not mean we can’t use digital humanities methods and tools like GNV at all of course, you just have to realize the limitations and figure out an alternative that does work for your particular research. One of the solutions we are working on is building our own database containing historical texts on art and technology together with the people at the Utrecht Digital Humanities Lab. We only just started, and it is a work in progress, so more on that to follow soon!



[1] In computational linguistics, n-grams are actually used for more complex things like probability predictions too.

Unexpected connections: paper flowers

A groom's clay pipe, decorated with paper flowers. First half of the eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Frisian Maritime Museum.
A groom’s clay pipe, decorated with paper flowers. First half of the eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Frisian Maritime Museum.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in the final stages of researching a paper on an entirely different topic, a call in the early nineteenth-century proceedings of the Dutch society for husbandry (Nederlandse Huishoudelijke Maatschappij) caught my eye. The society, established in the late eighteenth century as a branch of the Royal Dutch Society of Sciences and Humanities (Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij van Wetenschappen), started a new program to improve the applied sciences and artisanal industry in the Netherlands, such as engraving, painting and pottery manufacture, through prize competitions and the establishment of art academies. This call was for a prize competition: who could produce the best paper flowers? Judging by advertisements in newspapers and magazines, making paper flowers was a popular pastime and they were widely used as decorative items, so it made sense to want to stimulate their production.

Art supplies seller's advertisement for paper to make paper flowers. Rotterdamse Courant, 3 December 1816. Source: Delpher
Art supplies seller’s advertisement for paper to make paper flowers. Rotterdamse Courant, 3 December 1816. Source: Delpher. Click to enlarge.

“But what on earth does this have to do with science and medicine?” I hear you think. Well, a quick search learns that paper flowers did play a role in both science and medicine – although at wildly different moments and locations.

A contemporary origami kusudama. Courtesy of roserevolution.
A contemporary origami kusudama. Courtesy of roserevolution.

A kusudama, or Japanese medicine ball (kusuri means medicine and tama means ball) is a kind of origami paper flower that is nowadays made as a decoration, but they probably stem from the Heaian Period (794 – 1192). Originally it was a bundle of fragrant woods and herbs placed in a small cloth bag, which was decorated with blossoms and hung in the house to dispel evil spirits and disease. Unfortunately I have been unable to find reliable sources on how and when the medicine ball transformed from a cloth bag into a paper flower, and when the medicinal use disappeared. Maybe there is a Japanese reader out there who can enlighten us?

Mary Delany, Physalis, Winter Cherry, a paper collage. Courtesy of the British Museum.
Mary Delany, Physalis, Winter Cherry, a paper collage. Courtesy of the British Museum.

An entirely different kind of paper flowers are Mary Delany’s (1700-1788). An upper class lady who grew bored with other pastimes after the death of her husband, Delany started making vividly coloured representations of blossoming flowers out of tissue paper in her early seventies. This may sound as a rather eccentric hobby, but in the royal and intellectual circles in which she moved, her models were taken extremely serious: the botanist Sir Joseph Banks allegedly declared that her collages were ‘the only imitations of nature that he had ever seen from which he could venture to describe botanically any plant without the least fear of committing an error’.  This seems to imply that, although not exactly three-dimensional, Delany’s models did have a certain depth and detail that was lacking in drawings and prints. Moreover, their advantage compared to dried flowers must have been that they did not loose colour over time, and had not shrunken, although Delany occasionally included parts of the actual plant in her collages. In the collage in the image above, of the Winter Cherry, an actual skeleton of a pod case is stuck over paper seeds. A century before Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka started making their famous glass flowers, Mary Delany’s paper flowers were the state of the art in botanical models.

Mapping histories of medicine

Over the past few months, I have started exploring the many possibilities offered by Digital Humanities technologies. Digital humanities ‘can be described as a set of conceptual and practical approaches to digital engagement with cultural materials’, as this excellent online resource from UCLA puts it. Another excellent resource for historians to learn more about digital tools and techniques is Adam Crymble’s ‘The Programming Historian.’ One of the things I find most fascinating is the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to represent historical data. While keeping in mind that maps are always distorted in some way, entering historical data about events, people, and dates into a GIS application can visualize connections and networks that are otherwise difficult to grasp.

Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.
Network visualization of 17th C correspondents discussing anatomy via E-Pistolarium project.

For example, the ‘Knowledge circulation in the 17th century’ project in the Netherlands gives insight not only in the content of correspondence of seventeenth-century philosophers, but also in the network it formed. Something similar is done in Stanford University’s ‘Republic of Letters’ project. There are countless other examples, but one thing many of these projects have in common is a substantial professional team of developers, creating the technical infrastructure that humanities researchers then fill with their data.

However, there are possibilities for individual researchers without a big budget too. Many universities will offer their students and employees an online GIS course free of charge, and the development of open source software offers new opportunities. Here is an example of how a research group used open source application QGIS to create maps for their research on Burgundy’s historical landscape.

Even if you do not want to download software -or if your laptop cannot handle it- there are possibilities. Last week, I experimented a bit with the experimental data visualization web application Google Fusion Tables, which allows you to create online maps and tables from your own data. Of course this becomes more interesting when you have a big dataset, but just to see the effect I entered the sites of experimentation I described in a recent paper, “Anatomical Mercury: Changing Understandings of Quicksilver, Blood, and the Lymphatic System, 1650–1800.”

First experiment:     historical data in Google Fusion Tables.
First experiment: historical data in Google Fusion Tables

This resulted in an online map and a pie chart showing the geographical spread of experiments using mercury to trace the lymphatic system in the period 1650-1800. Even with this ridiculously small dataset, you get an overview that is impossible to obtain from the paper so fast. Of course, there is much to object: Google (for now at least) mainly contains contemporary maps, although historical imagery is being added as we speak.

Moreover, I’m still trying to figure out if there is a way to connect datapoints and thus visualize interactions and networks in Fusion Tables. Used with such a small dataset the application only produces an interesting illustration – this did not provide any new insights. Still, this is only a first try. I have just installed QGIS and hope to use it to gain new insights from my research data in the near future.

Do you already use digital humanities methods or GIS in your historical research? What are your experiences?

Weapon salve, tooth hangers and other ‘sympathetic’ cures

In my previous blog post I wrote about the use of Lapis Judaicus, a ‘stone’ used to cure bladder stones, as a form of sympathetic medicine. Sympathetic medicine is a term used to refer to historical medical practices in which a cure is ‘sympathetically’ related to the condition it treats; it relates to, involves, depends on, acts on or is effected by ‘sympathy’, a real or supposed affinity, correspondence, or occult influence, as the OED puts it. The more I read and thought about it, the more I realized that the relationship between cure and disease in sympathetic medicine can take many different forms. We can roughly distinguish between material and immaterial sympathetic medicine. The latter would be spells and incantations, but as my regular readers will understand, I am more interested in the various appearances of material sympathetic medicine. So far, I have been able to distinguish three different kinds, but I’d love to hear about other examples!

Similarity of colour, shape or substance

19th century, silver and tooth. Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum Ingolstadt, Inv.-Nr.  12/028. Photograph: M. Kowalski.
Hanger to cure toothache. 19th century, silver and tooth. Deutsches Medizinhistorisches Museum Ingolstadt, Inv.-Nr. 12/028. Photograph: M. Kowalski.

Probably the most common and widespread were cures based on the idea that substances similar in colour, shape or substance to the body part, bodily fluid, or cause of the patient’s misery would make a good cure. Well into the eighteenth century, apothecary handbooks were full of recipes containing predominantly red ingredients that were prescribed to strengthen the blood or the heart. Similarly, snake-like grasses were recommended to cure snakebites, powdered human skull to alleviate a headache, et cetera. Another curious example of this ‘similarity principle’ I saw in an exhibition at the Charité Museum in Berlin last year: a nineteenth-century human tooth in a silver hanger, to be worn around the neck to cure toothache.

The cause as the cure

A marble relief from Herculaneum. Achilles scrapes rust from his spear into the wound of Telephus. Source: http://www.monsalvat.no/grkmyths.htm
A marble relief from Herculaneum. Achilles scrapes rust from his spear into the wound of Telephus. Source: http://www.monsalvat.no/grkmyths.htm

Another strain of material sympathetic medicine is that in which the cause of the ailment is also used as the cure. The oldest example I know of is described in the classical legend of Telephus, who was wounded in battle by Achilles’ spear. The wound only healed when scrapings from the spear were applied to it. It is this same principle that underlies a nineteenth-century paramedical practice that  is still used by some today, namely homeopathy. In my book, I also mention an eighteenth-century poem in which Achilles’ spear is used as a metaphor for the budding practice of inoculation, but when you think about it, that’s not entirely the same of course: inoculation is preventive medicine.

The pars pro toto treatment

The third kind of material sympathetic medicine I call the ‘pars pro toto kind’, for want of a better name: treating bodily material of the patient (like excrements) or the object or substance that caused the ailment rather than the patient himself. The most famous early modern example I know about is weapon salve: a substance applied to the weapon that caused a wound, rather than to the wound itself. It was already hotly debated by the seventeenth century, as has been described in detail in this blog post by Issei Takehara as well as in Dutch by professor Mart van Lieburg, and it had all but disappeared by the eighteenth century.

Do you have a favourite example of an early modern sympathetic cure? Please share!

The Jew’s Stone: dissolving kidney stones

Lapis judaicus listed in Pharmacopoea Roterodamensis galeno-chymica, of Rotterdamsche galenische en chymische Apotheek, 1735.
Lapis judaicus listed in the
Pharmacopoea Roterodamensis galeno-chymica, of Rotterdamsche galenische en chymische Apotheek, 1735.

Last week, I attended an excellent workshop on Gems in Transit, organised by Michael Bycroft. In my paper, I discussed the slow but steady disappearance of gemstones from eighteenth-century medicine and pharmacy. On one of my slides I showed a page from an eighteenth-century Dutch city pharmacopeia listing which minerals an apothecary should keep in his shop, to illustrate that gemstones were still a standard ingredient. One of the other participants, reading the list, asked me: “What’s Lapis judaicus or Jew’s stone?” Good question. I had assumed it was an iron ore, as it was listed alongside Lapis haematitis and Lapis lazuli – both metal ores in a sense, and as I was focussing on gemstones for this paper, I had not investigated it any further.

Jew's stones and crinoid stems, depicted in Michaelis Mercati,  Samminiatensis Metallotheca. Rome:Jo. Mariam Salvioni, 1717-1719.
Jew’s stones and crinoid stems, depicted in Michaelis Mercati, Samminiatensis Metallotheca. Rome: Jo. Mariam Salvioni, 1717-1719.

Yet now I was curious, and a quick search shows that Lapis judaicus is something different altogether: namely the spines of certain cidaroid echinoids (a sort of sea urchins), in particular the now extinct Balanocidaris, a kind of pencil urchin. Christopher Duffin has published an article on the history of the medicinal use of the Jew’s Stone, from which it appears that from Roman times until the eighteenth century, recipes circulated recommending the ingestion of powdered or shaved Jew’s Stone in water as a cure against kidney stones.[1] He suggests that this was a case of sympathetic medicine, in which a cure is materially related to the condition it treats; i.e. animal eyes to cure an eye disease in humans, a dissolved, vaguely kidney-shaped ‘stone’ to dissolve kidney stones. The name Jew’s stone probably referred to Judea, were most of these fossils were found – although they occur around the entire Mediterranean.

A Balanocidaris marginata fossil. Source: Wikimedia Commons
A Balanocidaris marginata fossil. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What surprised me even more though was that one of the first links I found was to a recent article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, which described a study in which patients with kidney stones were treated with 2 g of Lapis judaicus powder in hard capsules per day for 10 weeks. In total, sixty patients with kidney stones were included in the double-blind randomized clinical study. Thirty patients received the Lapis judaicus capsules and thirty others received a placebo for the same period. The size of the kidney stones reduced significantly in the drug group; in nine patients, the stone was even completely dissolved.[2]

Ethnopharmacology is concerned with the documentation of indigenous medical knowledge and the scientific study of indigenous medicines, or in this case rather historical medical knowledge and medicine, to contribute to modern medicine. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem – the Lapis judaicus study is not the only recent example of a historical pharmaceutical recipe that proved effective in clinical trial. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Nottingham found that a medieval eye remedy containing onion and garlic killed MRSA bacteria. Although medical doctors were quick to point out that something that works in a clinical trial can be very hard to translate into an effective, commercially available drug, these cases suggest that historical pharmaceutical recipes may be more relevant for the present than we think.

[1] Duffin, Christopher. J. ‘Lapis Judaicus or the Jews’ stone: the folklore of fossil echinoid spinesProceedings of the Geologists’ Association, Volume 117, Issue 3, 2006, 265–275.

[2] Faridi, P. et al, ‘Randomized and double-blinded clinical trial of the safety and calcium kidney stone dissolving efficacy of Lapis judaicus.’ Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Vol. 156, 28 October 2014, 82-87.

A taxidermy excursion

A stuffed crocodile in Sevilla cathedral
A stuffed crocodile (?) in Sevilla cathedral

In the eighteenth-century anatomical collections that I studied for my book, Elegant Anatomy, I occasionally found preparations of animals. These animal preparations were primarily used to gain a better understanding of birth defects that also affect humans, like cleft palate and anencephaly. The ones I saw were mainly wet and dried preparations, and seemed to have no relation whatsoever to the endless numbers of ‘stuffed animals’ in nineteenth-century natural history collections. This piqued my curiosity, and in my spare time I started reading on the history of taxidermy (‘arranging skin’). It could be argued that taxidermy had been around in some form or other for centuries, if you count in Egyptian (animal) mummies and the odd medieval crocodile in a church – the latter was probably a reference to the biblical Leviathan.[1]

Dr Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein, Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy (Constable and Robinson, 2013)
Dr Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy (Constable and Robinson, 2013)

French explorer Pierre Belon described a rather crude method for preserving the skin of birds in his 1555 Observations, but taxidermy only truly became an art form in the nineteenth century, when travellers wanted to preserve their hunting trophies, stuffed exotic birds became a desirable home decoration, and naturalists started to see the educational value of preserved animals.[2] The most curious offshoot of the practice is probably the anthropomorphic taxidermy of Walter Potter. Although many people now categorically reject killing animals for hunting trophies (and rightly so if you ask me), Victorian taxidermy has become a collector’s item, and taxidermy is still important for contemporary museums of natural history and education purposes.

As I am interested in he skills underlying material culture, I wondered whether taxidermy was difficult to learn, and whether techniques and materials had changed much since its nineteenth-century heyday. That is how I recently ended up in a nature education centre for forty-eight hours, taking an introductory taxidermy workshop with the Dutch Society of Taxidermists. I didn’t really know what to expect – a bunch of guys who usually spend their weekends stuffing animals in their sheds maybe? It was a pleasant surprise to find a team of both male and female instructors ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties, and a similarly varied group of participants eager to learn the basics. Students, nurses, IT consultants, artists, foresters, researchers, shop assistants, farmers, a gallery owner, a surgeon, all fascinated by the possibility of giving a death animal a second life.

My First Squirrel
My First Squirrel

In the Netherlands, all indigenous animals are protected by law, and can only be preserved by a certified taxidermist upon gaining a police declaration. Therefore the animals used for instruction during the weekend were either ‘pests’ (grey squirrels, muskrats, moles, skunks) or tropical birds bred in Europe that died from natural causes. After selecting our animals and an introductory lecture on Friday night, we got to work on Saturday. After making an incision on the back or belly of the animal, the skin has to be carefully separated from the subcutaneous facia. The skull has to be taken out and cleaned thoroughly, as this is included in the artificial body on which the skin is mounted. The artificial body is made using wire, straw, yarn and clay, with the measures and shape of the skinned body as a starting point. The skin is washed, tanned and dried, and glass eyes are put into the skull. Subsequently the skin is fitted onto the artificial body, adding and removing straw and clay to reach the desirable effect. Finally the skin is carefully stitched close and the animal mounted on a pedestal or branch.

Although it all sounds pretty straightforward, it is a very precise job, and it is incredibly difficult to obtain the desired result. I am pretty happy with how my squirrel came out, but I had help from experienced instructors, and she’s certainly not the prettiest piece of taxidermy. Of course I grilled the instructors about how they learned themselves, and the answer was without exception: practice. Taxidermy is truly an art in the Aristotelian sense: a skill that can only be learned by doing. Of course there is theoretical knowledge about materials and rules involved, but the actual taxidermy is mostly tacit knowledge. Interestingly, when I compared what I had learned to early twentieth-century taxidermy handbooks, I noticed that the process has not changed substantially since – but fortunately the arsenic formula formerly used to preserve the skin has been replaced with healthier alternatives since. I doubt that I will be able to commit to becoming a professional taxidermist – but a fascinating excursion it was!

[1] A lot of entertaining stories and theories circulate about the presence of stuffed crocodiles in churches, yet the theory that these ‘monsters’ were seen as the embodiment of the biblical Leviathan seems to make most sense. See i.e. Amelia Thomas, ‪The Zoo on the Road to Nablus: A Story of Survival from the West Bank. PublicAffairs, 2008.

[2] For an introduction on the history of taxidermy, see Pat Morris, Taxidermy. Art, Science, and Bad Taste. MPM Publishing, 2010.

Publish or perish

This blog post is long overdue, mostly because of a number of publications that needed finishing. Although I enjoy blogging a lot, if I want to stay in work as an academic I need to publish academic books and papers – ‘publish or perish’. There is a lot of discussion going on both in the Netherlands and internationally right now about the pressure to publish as much as possible in a relatively short time. Read more here (in English) and here (in Dutch) for example. Personally, I do feel that pressure too of course, but I enjoy writing the academic publications and I try to make time for other things I find important – like this blog.

Long story short, although it might seem a bit strange to list academic publications on a blog I started primarily to inform a broad audience about my research, this is what takes up most of my time, so I figured it would not be so strange to devote a post to it for once. Three of these publications came out recently and a fourth is on the way, so here comes some shameless self-advertising:

BoekMy book on the eighteenth-century Leiden anatomical collections, Elegant Anatomy, is based on my PhD thesis and now available from Brill. I’d like to use the opportunity to thank everyone who helped me once more, especially the two reviewers who helped me tremendously with their constructive comments and the lovely people at Brill.

Another result from the ‘Cultures of Collecting‘ research project in which I wrote my thesis is a wonderful collection of essays, The Fate of Anatomical Collections, skillfully edited by my former supervisors, Rina Knoeff and Robert Zwijnenberg. It is now available from Ashgate and contains many fascinating contributions – I wrote a small piece on the fate of eighteenth-century bead-decorated preparations of fetuses and babies of unclear origin.

Moreover, I wrote an article about anatomical mercury that is now available online in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, and which will appear in the printed journal this year.

Last but not least, the article resulting from the same project that originally inspired this blog, my research on nineteenth-century medicine chests in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, will soon appear in the Journal of Victorian Culture.

If you are interested in reading any of these but don’t know how to get to them please do not hesitate to contact me. If you read the Medicine Chest for fun, I can imagine that you find the above publications a bit too much – don’t worry, I’ll be back with more of the usual ‘light’ reading soon! I also now realize that many of you probably do not know that I also contribute to the fabulous Recipes Project on a regular basis: you can read my blogs for them here.

Coming up next: my adventures in taxidermy…

Strange glass: Vitrium Antimonii

Pure antimony
Pure antimony

During my research fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin I studied the overlap (or lack thereof) of knowledge about making coloured and stained glass in artisanal versus medical circles in the eighteenth century Netherlands. Although it turned out that much of this knowledge was so tacit that it was never put down in writing properly, I found one remarkable boundary object, or rather a boundary material or ingredient: antimonial glass, or vitrium antimonii. Antimony is a lustrous grey metalloid, that occurs in nature as the sulfide mineral stibnite or antimonite. Roasted in an iron pot, it turns into antimony. Known since ancient times, the name is derived from the Greek anti-mono, meaning ‘not alone,’ because it does not occur in its pure form in nature. Because of its natural occurrence, colour and melting point, antimony was often confused with stibnite or lead. To add to the confusion the Dutch/German word ‘Spiesglas’ sometimes seems to refer to crude antimony, and at other times to antimonial glass. Moreover, the processes for creating glass of antimony and subsequently a red pigment from that glass, as described in Basil Valentine’s 1604 Triumphal Chariot of Antimony, are anything but straightforward.

Supposed antimonial glass (unverified modern reproduction)

Antimony is toxic for humans, and in early modern medicine it was sometimes employed in antimony cups, about which I have written before. Yet antimony could be transformed into other forms, and was thus used in both early modern visual arts and medicine. Although the exact origins of the recipes are unclear, by the seventeenth century, antimonial glass was generally understood as a clear, yellow or red vitreous substance made from calcined (powdered and roasted) antimony. This ‘glass’ was subsequently powdered and both used as a pigment in glass paints and solved in wine as a very strong emetic, a purge. The transformation from a silvery (mercurial) substance into something yellow or red (sulfurous) played a central role in alchemy, and was even associated with the secret to the Philosopher’s Stone, which could either transform all metals into gold or contained the secret to the universal panacea. This characteristic of silvery antimony transforming into yellow or red antimonial glass partly explains the popularity of such a toxic material.

According to Leiden professor of medicine, chemistry and botany Herman Boerhaave (1668-1737), the symbol for antimony:Antimony symbol “Denotes a chaos, χάος, world, or one thing which includes all: this is the character of antimony; wherein is found gold [the circle symbol], with plenty of an arsenical corrosive [the cross at the top].”About antimonial glass he remarked “The glass of antimony is almost mortally emetic; and when infused in wine, that is not considerably acid, it renders the liquor vomitive, without any great loss of its substance.”[1] Antimonial glass remained a popular ingredient for purges well into the nineteenth century, as shows from various apothecary and medical handbooks, as well as a pigment. Only with the rise of synthetic pigments, bacteriology and antisepsis does it seem to have disappeared from art and medicine.

Sample of supposed ‘Vitrum antimonii,’ probably eighteenth century. Source: Pharmaziemuseum Brixen, Italy.

With this disappearance, precise knowledge about the highly toxic process of creating antimonial glass disappeared as well. Fortunately there are people like history of chemistry professor Lawrence Principe, who reproduced many alchemical experiments and processes, amongst others that of making antimonial glass.[2] Principe discovered that antimonial glass can only be produced from stibnite ore containing some quartz, not from pure antimony – the quartz is essential for the vitrification of antimony. Without the quartz, the process results in dull grey lumps. A sample of supposed antimonial glass, probably from the eighteenth century, shows that there were apothecaries in Boerhaave’s time who already failed to understand this. Similarly, many apothecaries and artisans will have failed to produce a red pigment from glass of antimony, as Principe shows that it was not the antimony, but the residue of iron instruments that gave a preparation of antimonial glass and vinegar its red colour. It is this kind of reconstructive research that is essential to truly understand the complexities of early modern artisanal and medical knowledge.

[1] Herman Boerhaave, Elements of Chemistry, vol. 1, 68, and vol. 3, 322-3.

[2] Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012, 90, 142-3.