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October Oddities – Frederick Ruysch

One of Ruysch’s fetal tableaux.
The wet preparation jars.
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Some of the most fanciful and bizarre anatomical illustrations in all of the Becker’s collections come from the works of Frederick Ruysch.  Ruysch (1638-1731) was born in The Hague, the Netherlands, and spent the first part of his professional career working as an apothecary.  He went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Leiden in 1664, then opened his own medical practice in The Hague.

other imageIn 1666 he was appointed praelector of anatomy to the surgeon’s guild of Amsterdam, a post that called on him to teach anatomy to surgeons in training; in 1672 he became the city obstetrician, which allowed him to supervise and train the city’s midwives.  As an anatomist, one of Ruysch’s primary strengths was injecting vascular systems with colored liquid and wax so that they could be observed in full.  His anatomical achievements include describing the bronchial blood vessels and demonstrating the lymphatic valves.

Ruysch was most famous for his anatomical preparations, which formed the basis of his own anatomical museum.  These consisted of “dry” anatomical preparations – bones, dried skin, etc. – and “wet” preparations that consisted of a dissected part suspended in a glass jar, which was then filled with a preserving liquid and sealed shut.  Many anatomists of the time relied on such preparations for teaching and demonstration purposes, but Ruysch was unique in his imaginative presentations.  He arranged the skeletons of fetuses on a pile of bladder stones, holding pieces of membrane like handkerchiefs; and topped his wet preparation jars with dioramas of shells, branches, and fish skeletons.  The result is something that is both beautiful and morbidly bizarre.

Ruysch’s collection was eventually purchased in 1717 by the Russian tsar Peter the Great at the price of 30,000 Dutch guilders.  The tsar is said to have been so moved by the sight of one of Ruysch’s perfectly preserved children that he kissed it on the forehead. 

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