Camper, Peter (Petrus)

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Camper, Peter (Petrus)

(b. Leiden, Netherlands, 11 May 1722; d. The Hague, Netherlands, 7 April 1789),

anatomy, surgery, obstetrics, anthropology, ophthalmology.

Camper’s father, Florentius Camper, a minister, married Sara Geertruida Ketting at Batavia, Java (now Djakarta, Indonesia), while serving there. For many years he lived in well-to-do retirement at Leiden, often receiving men of science and fame, among them Hermann Boerhaave. He took care that his gifted son was taught carpentry, as well as the arts of design and painting, at an early age. When he was twelve Camper was accepted at Leiden University, where he studied classics, natural sciences, and medicine for twelve years. Among his teachers were W. J. Gravesande, Pieter van Musschenbroek, and, in the medical faculty, Albinus the Younger, Herman Oosterdijk Schacht, and H. D. Gaub. Camper practiced midwifery under the guidance of C. Trioen, the teacher of the city’s midwives. On 14 October 1746 he took his degrees in science and in medicine with two theses, De visu and De quibusdam oculi partibus, both published in Leiden in the same year.

After having been a physician, Camper left Leiden in 1748 for a long journey through England, France, Switzerland, and Germany; during the trip he met many foreign scientists, contacts that he later cultivated. In England he attended William Smellie’s course in midwifery and was accepted as a member of the Painters’d Academy. In September 1749, while traveling from Paris to Geneva, the twenty-seven-year-old scientist was notified that he had been appointed professor of philosophy at Franeker University, in the province of Friesland. Soon he was also awarded the chairs of medicine and surgery. His assumption of the chairs was delayed by illness until 28 April 1751; in his inaugural address (De mundo Optimo) he dealt with the best of all possible worlds.

Four years later, in 1755, Camper was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery at the Athenaeum Illustre in Amsterdam. His inaugural address (De anatomes in omnibus scientiss usu) concerned the use of anatomy in all sciences. In Amsterdam he performed many dissections for the surgeons’ guild and was portrayed with the governors of that guild by Tibout Regters. In 1758 he was appointed professor of medicine and delivered an oration on certainty in medicine (De certo in medicina). However, in 1761, at the urging of his wife, Johanna Bourboom, here signed his professorship (retaining the title professor honorarius) to settle at her country house in Klein Lankum, near Franeker. There he conducted research in comparative anatomy and completed his two-volume Demonstrationum anatomico pathologicarum (1760–1762) as well as minor papers.

After two years the restless man accepted an appointment in theoretical medicine, anatomy, surgery, and botany at Groningen University. His broad outlook on nature is apparent from the subject of his inaugural oration (De analogia inter animalia et stirpes), in which he discussed the analogy between animals and plants. For some ten years Camper devoted himself to his extensive teaching duties (he also gave a course in forensic medicine) and his medical consultations. In the academic year 1765–1766 he acted as vice-chancellor.

In 1773 Camper again retired to return to Klein Lankum. The death of his wife following an operation for breast cancer (1776) left him depressed. He attempted to improve his frame of mind by traveling in Germany and Belgium.

As a landowner Camper was concerned about the flooding of a great part of Friesland in 1776; he wrote a booklet critical of the building of dikes that provoked a polemical answer. Gradually he became more involved in public affairs; he became burgomaster of Workum and member of the States of Friesland, which sent him as a representative to the States-General in The Hague. There, as a faithful supporter of the house of Orange, he was nominated a member of the State Council. However, the man who had received so many honors in the scientific world and was not at all devoid of vanity—as well as having a rather quick temper—now had to suffer vehement political attacks that soured his last years. He died in 1789 at The Hague and was buried in the Pieterskerk, Leiden.

During his lifetime Camper was one of the most famous scientists of western Europe. On his numerous journeys (he visited England in 1748, 1752, and 1785) he made the acquaintance of many outstanding scientists. Camper had an encyclopedic mind and contributed to many fields.

For some thirty years Camper practiced midwifery and performed several experimental symphysiotomies on pigs, an operation that, however, he never performed on a living human. In anatomy he described structures that are still associated with him: the processus vaginalis (peritonei and testis), Camper’s fascia, and Camper’s chiasma tendinum digitorum manus. In comparative anatomy he discovered the air spaces in the bones of birds and studied the hearing of fishes and the croaking of frogs. He performed careful dissections of the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the orangutan.

Goethe sent his treatise on the os inter maxillare to Camper. His measurement of the facial angle and the introduction of Camper’s line contributed to the foundation of anthropology. In surgery Camper recommended a procedure of cutting for bladder stone in two operations. He was a supporter of inoculation, and his thesis on vision was a good piece of work.

Camper had a great talent for illustrating, as is shown in many of his publications. Moreover, he provided the illustrations for Smellie’s well-known book on midwifery. He discussed the relations between anatomy and the arts of drawing, painting, and sculpting in a two-volume treatise that was translated by Cogan five years after his death.

Camper was highly esteemed in the scientific world, as is shown by his membership in most learned societies of western Europe. His comprehensive knowledge, his inquiring mind, his industry in research and in writing, and his skill in graphic arts procured him a well-merited fame attained by few other contemporary scientists.


I. Original Works. Many of Camper’s works were written in Dutch; the most important academic lecture are mentioned above. There is no complete collection of his works, although there are some collections of his minor pieces available in German and French. Among his writings are Demonstration um anatomico-pathologicarum libri duo (Amsterdam. 1760–1762); Sämmtliche kleine Schriften, die Arzney-, Wundarznevkunst and Naturgeschichte betreffend, trans, and with supp. by J. F. M. Herbell, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1784–1790); The Works of the Late Professor Camper, on the Connexion between the Science of Anatomy and the Arts of Drawing, Painting, Statuary, T. Cogan. trans. (London, 1794): Dissertationes decem, 2 vols, (Lingen, 1798–1800): Oeuvres de P. Camper, qui ont pour objet l’histoire naturelle, la physiologic et l’anatomie comparée. H. J. Jansch, trans., 3 vols. (Paris, 1883), with atlas; De oculorum fibrica et morbis, with trans, into German, no. 2 in the series Opuscula selecta Neerlandicorum de arte medica (Amsterdam, 1913): Petri Camperi itinera in Angliam. 1748–1785, no. 15, ibid. (Amsterdam, 1939), which contains his lecture notes on Smellie’s course on midwifery and his diaries, with English translation, introduction in Dutch and English by B. W. T. Nuyens; and Optical Dissertation on Vision (1746), G. Ten Doesschate, trans., no. 3 in the series Dutch Classics of the History of Science (Nieuwkoop, 1962), with facsimile and introduction.

II. Secondary Literature. There is no full biography of Camper in English. The introductions to the editions of his optical thesis and diaries cited above offer many biographical data, however. See also the biographical sketch of Camper in Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 3 (1803), 257–262; A. G. Camper, Levensschets van P. Camper (Leeuwarden, 1791); C. E. Daniëls, Het leven en de verdiensten van Petrus Camper (Utrecht, 1880); C. J. Doets, De heelkunde van Petrus Camper 1722–1789. the sis(Leiden, 1948); and E. B. Kaplan, Peter Camper 1722–1789, in Bulletin of the Hospital for Joint Diseases;17 (1956), 371–385, which contains an extensive bibliography. Neder-lands tijdschriji voor geneeskunde, 83 (6 May, 1939), 2039–2149, contains twelve articles on various aspects of Camper’s work written by Dutch historians of medicine to commemorate the sesquicentennial of Camper’s death.

G. A. Lindeboom.