Science That Gets Under The Skin

Gerhard Blasius, Anatome animalium, Terrestrium variorum, Volatilium, Aquatilium, Serpentum, Insectorum, Ovorumque, structuram naturalem etc.

Printed in Amsterdam in 1681 by widow of Johannis van Someren, Hendrick Boom and widow of Theodorus Boom.

We’re living in a time of very high specialisation. Our extensive knowledge hardly affords much of a broad insight into complex scientific fields. But in the beginning, it was all about the pursuit of knowledge. In the 17th century, during the transition from humanistic to modern science, Amsterdam shone like a beacon in Europe’s research and teaching scene. It was in this exciting setting that physician Gerhard Blasius (1627–1682) was working. In 1666, Blasius became the first Professor of Medicine at the pre-university school Athenaeum Illustre of Amsterdam and, within his lifetime, he published over 30 books and textbooks on various medical topics. His last book was ‘Anatome animalium’, a textbook on the comparative anatomy of animals. Today, it would seem entirely impossible to us that a practising physician – nowadays we’d call him a general practitioner – could be so successful in such a far-removed specialist area alongside his own career. But many things were different back then.


‘Anatome animalium’ – Animals Inside Out

What’s immediately striking, as we leaf through this hefty book, are the numerous illustrations, which depict exotic animals such as camels and chameleons alongside beavers, butterflies, snakes and fish. Sometimes the image depicts the skeleton, sometimes the entire animal from the outside. For instance, a lion skeleton is placed next to a lifelike image of a lion for comparison. This helps the reader to understand how the bones support the outer skin when the animal walks. Individual body parts are often depicted on the same page, sometimes a head, sometimes a jawbone, with an eye beside it and a nervous system underneath. The illustrations are numbered and lettered; on the opposite page, readers can find the corresponding descriptions– in Latin, of course.

The entire book is structured thematically; related species are placed next to each other. This enables readers to compare how the body parts of a horse, for example, differ from those of a sheep. And that’s what this handbook is all about: comparison.

The book, printed in 1681 in Amsterdam, is a handbook for an entirely new scientific field: comparative anatomy. Through his studies, Blasius became one of the co-founders of this new field. The aim of this branch of research was to identify similarities between the body parts and ‘building blocks’ of different living organisms and to understand how they developed. This was a time long before evolutionary theory. But there were some clever minds that noticed that similar body parts developed differently in different animals. A bat wing has the same function as a butterfly wing, but it is structured completely differently. At the same time, it is anatomically similar to a horse leg, which is obviously not used for flight.

These studies later developed into evolutionary biology. But first, these similarities and differences had to be identified, described and compiled. And that’s exactly what Blasius did in ‘Anatome animalium’, which of course he wrote in the scientific language of Latin – just like almost all of his works.

Gerhard Blasius (1627–1682), physician, Professor of Medicine and co-founder of comparative anatomy.

From Physician To Anatomist

If we take a look at the index that precedes Blasius’s text, we find a neat list of names with page numbers, indicating the writers on whom Blasius based his work. But the book, for all its modernness, is still rooted in the ancient history of science, as we can see from the entry for Roman physician Galen: Blasius clearly refers to him so frequently that he doesn’t even write individual page numbers, but rather ‘variis locis’, meaning ‘various instances’. But another name reminds us that Blasius wasn’t always so strict when it came to the ethics of science: ‘Nic. Steno’. This name refers to Nicolas Stenon, or rather Niels Stensen, a Danish physician and clergyman who was also studying anatomy with Blasius in 1660. Around that time, an incident occurred that caused a real stir in Europe.

Nicolaes Tulp was able to show his students what a human being looked like on the inside: he was a surgeon and dissecting cadavers was the surgeons’ exclusive domain, which they kept jealously guarded from their colleagues. Physicians such as Gerhard Blasius had to content themselves with animal bodies. Painting by Rembrandt, 1632.

Picture the scene: we’re in Hospice St.-Pierre in Amsterdam, where physician Gerhard Blasius is allowed to teach theoretical anatomy. Publicly dissecting human bodies (in so-called amphitheatres), however, is a privilege reserved for surgeons. (This was an internal, small-scale war among scientists, the likes of which could obviously no longer exist today…)

As Blasius and his student Steno dissect a sheep’s head, Steno makes a ground-breaking discovery: the never-before described excretory duct of the parotid gland, which is still named after him to this day. But Steno was a young student. His teacher immediately contacted a renowned colleague to boast about ‘his’ discovery. The following year, he took the credit for Steno’s findings once again, this time in writing, in his medical handbook entitled ‘Medicina generalis’. But Steno didn’t take this lying down: he accused his teacher of lacking any expertise in the field of anatomy and a legal dispute ensued. Another year later, Steno produced his doctoral thesis, which was based on this anatomical detail – thus launching a successful career in the field of anatomy. Steno was so successful and published so industriously that his former teacher could not avoid citing his ‘deceitful student’ in his late work more frequently than any other writer. Perhaps after 20 years, Blasius had made peace with the fact that Steno had surpassed him as a researcher of anatomy.

But Blasius’s audacity didn’t end there: when he was accepted into the scientific circle ‘Collegium Privatum Amstelodamense’, he actually had the chutzpah to publish a book for the institute, which was nothing more than a summary of the scientific achievements of Jan Swammerdam, under his own name! And that’s despite the fact that Swammerdam was still the Chair of the collegium. That move was probably too bold; in the second edition, Blasius’s name disappeared from the front cover.

It’s incredible that these incidents didn’t damage Blasius’s reputation as a physician. Two years later, he was appointed to the newly established role of Professor for Medicine at the Athenaeum Illustre. Over the course of his long career, Blasius published many textbooks and handbooks on various fields of medicine; he was anything but a specialist. He then drew from this great wealth of knowledge to produce his late work ‘Anatome animalium’.

Just one year after publishing this handbook, Blasius died – a renowned scientist whose work had earned him a small fortune and an excellent reputation.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

There is a digital reproduction of this edition available online, courtesy of the University of Rostock.

More of his works are available online here.

Wikipeida only offers little information on Blasius, but you can read a lot about his student Nicolas Steno.