Anatomical Collections in 19th-c. Medicine


A review of Preparations on the Move: The Leiden Anatomical Collections in the Nineteenth Century, by Hieke Huistra.

In the nineteenth century, medicine underwent a laboratory revolution. Or, at least, this is how the received view goes, explains Hieke Huistra in the introduction of her thesis. While early in the century medical knowledge was produced by clinicians who combined bedside observations with post-mortem dissections, by the 1840s they were superseded by experimental laboratory scientists. According to this view, collections of human and animal specimens, until then the prime method of research and education, became increasingly irrelevant. Their biggest flaw was that they were static. The new way of doing and studying medicine required a hands-on approach, yet collections could only be viewed from distance. While not all historians subscribe to the argument of irrelevance of collections — some, indeed, overstate the importance of collections by calling this period “the age of museum medicine” — few challenge the view of “static collections.”

In her dissertation on the Leiden anatomical collections in the nineteenth century, Heike Huistra sets to prove this view wrong. Collections were not irrelevant. Students, faculty, university governors, and lay audiences continued to use them, in different ways. The reason they could do so even as medicine was changing was in their dynamic nature. Specimens were moved, taken from and added to collections, their meanings reframed in the new context. More intrusively, they were measured, taken out of jars, dissected, sliced and stained into microscopic slides. Huistra follows Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, who wrote that “the essence of organic preparations qua knowledge objects resides in this material complicity, which ensures their duration and the permanent possibility of their epistemic recall” (quoted on p. 45), to argue that collections could remain relevant because preparations were made of what they represented. The possibility of “epistemic recall” thus kept them current amidst major shifts in medicine. For university governors who defended the status of Leiden as the leading Dutch university in political upheavals of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, they were the status symbol, the link with the Leiden glory days of the eighteenth century.

The core of Heike Huistra’s dissertation consists of an introduction (titled “Prologue”), four large chapters, epilogue and appendices (list of curators of the Leiden Anatomical Cabinet and quotations). The introduction contains a helpful and lively written historiographical overview of literature on the place of collections in medical historiography and a terminological discussion of the terms “cabinet”, “museum” and “collection.” The first two chapters examine how medics—students and researchers—used collections; the third and fourth chapters move to consider the lay (lay visitors’ and university governors’) uses.

Chapter 1, “Take the Lid Off Before Use: How Students Handled Anatomical Preparations”, focuses on students. Medical students encountered collections at every step. They were encouraged to build their own collections, for use at home. Anatomical museums contained display collections, meant primarily for observation during individual study; but professors also built teaching collections (‘lecture collections’, ‘hand museums’) that were brought to lectures as three-dimensional illustrations. These specimens were passed around the lecture hall and thus had to be more robust — in screw-top jars, for example, allowing topping up the preserving fluid when necessary — to allow handling, as students used not just sight but also touch to explore these objects. Specimens were teaching and learning aids, and also preparation for dissection, but with the emergence of medical teaching laboratory, they were also transformed into raw material: old specimens were dissected for microscopic study, stained and turned into slides.

Such transformations were possible, as discussed in Chapter 2 “Make Do and Mend: How Researchers Used Old Collections in New Medicine”, because preparations were “made from what they represent.” This quality gave them an advantage over models. Huistra looks at three areas within, or overlapping with, anatomy to show how old specimens could be given new meanings. In physical anthropology/craniometry, human skulls from the collection of the eighteenth-century anatomist Sebald Justinus Brugmans (1763-1819) were originally classified into five races following the Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s (1752-1840) categorization and his descriptive approach; the new physical anthropologists post-1850 rejected the older approach in favor of a new “objective” method that relied on precise measurements of a range of parameters. Old skulls were thus measured and classified anew. In pathological anatomy, the change of the concept of disease from the humoral tradition — whereby the origin of disease lay in the imbalance of fluids coursing through the whole organism — to the pathological-anatomical approach, which ascribed disease to a well-delineated change in organ, and then tissue and the cell, also entailed turning old macroscopic preparations into histological microscopic slides. In comparative anatomy it was the discipline rather than the specimens that underwent transformation, as comparative anatomy transformed from a learning tool for medics (and so focused on comparatively useful vertebrates) into a standalone biological research field. The focus and the content of comparative anatomical collections, consequently, had to change too.

Chapter 3, “Dead Body in the Closet: How Lay Visitors Disappeared from the Leiden Anatomical Cabinet”, shows how the exclusion of lay audiences from Leiden anatomical collections, which took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, was never formal. In the earlier period, collections were located in the proximity of the university library and botanical gardens, putting them straight onto the tourist trail. Inside, specimens were explained by telling stories about the people they once had been. But in 1860, anatomy moved into a new and far less accessible building in a different part of town. Preparations were also now reframed in a “scientific” manner that made little sense to lay visitors, with skeletons no longer carrying “memento mori” banners and without stories about their past and crimes. Chapter 3 ends with a vignette about the Leiden anatomical museum today, its collection still officially open to lay audience, but in reality even more forbidding than in the 1860s. Huistra argues that the Leiden case is no exception, as, for example, the National Medical Museum in Washington D.C. In contrast to other national museums, located on the popular Mall, this one is situated in the army base in the suburbs. This exclusion shows us, according to Huistra, not that the collections are irrelevant, but precisely the opposite, that they remained of value to medical education and research.

Chapter 4, “Adieu Albinus: How the University Governors Lost their Status Symbol”, examines how the university governors tried to capitalize on the fame of anatomical collections to support the threatened status of Leiden University. The glory days of Leiden were also the heyday of gross anatomical preparation, and Leiden the home to a famous anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770). But political upheavals during the French period and especially the making of the new Kingdom of Netherlands threatened Leiden’s status. Requirements to standardize teaching collections across universities went against Leiden with its old, idiosyncratic collections mostly in private ownership. Standardizing Leiden collection to follow the new requirements entailed, however, destroying bridges between the past and the present, as specimens had to be renamed and reclassified. Anatomy moved yet again in 1923 and many preparations ended up in the basement. In the 1930s, they were taken out again with the intention to restore them, but lack of funds and the Second World War postponed that project to post-war times. Only part of the old preparations survived; while part of them were moved to the Museum Boerhaave (and thus, again, within reach of lay audiences), many stayed in the medical school. Their role, again, seems to be creating a “status-enhancing link to Leiden’s glorious past” (p. 115).

Hieke Huistra’s dissertation is a fine contribution to history of medicine, especially the history of anatomy and the burgeoning field of history of collections. It provides a sharply constructed argument against the notion of a simple, clear epistemological shift that, around 1850, established laboratory and experimental method as the prime (sole?) knowledge makers in medicine. Indeed, if collections had become irrelevant more than a century ago, then why are they still around, with their troublesome, manifest corporeality? The question of what to do with (historical and present) medical collections has troubled medical and political authorities as well as the groups from which the bodies that make preparations were recruited. Hieke Huistra provides a welcome historical perspective to a pertinent public problem.

Tatjana Buklijas

Liggins Institute

University of Auckland

New Zealand

Primary Sources
Leiden University Library, Special Collections
Leiden University Medical Center, Anatomical Museum archives
Royal College of Surgeons of England, Archives
Stadsarchief Rotterdam
Utrechts Archief, Utrecht

Dissertation Information
Leiden University. 2013. 173pp. Primary Advisor: Robert Zwijnenberg.

Image: Photograph by Hieke Hiustra.

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