Coiter, Volcher

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Coiter, Volcher

(b. Groningen, Netherlands, 1534; d. Champagne, France, 2 June 1576),

anatomy, physiology, ornithology, embryology, medicine.

Son of a jurist, Coiter was favored with an excellent education in his native city at St. Martin’s school, where the learned Regnerus Praedinius was master; there he first became acquainted with Galen and dissection. His ability was such that in 1555 the city fathers awarded him a stipend for five years of study at foreign universities. During this period, although dates and movements are not always clear, we know that his good fortune in enjoying eminent teachers continued. He probably studied with Leonhard Fuchs at Tübingmen. In 1556 he was briefly at Montpellier; he mentions Guyillaume Rondelet and Laurent Joubert, and he also knew Felix Platter. Gabriele Falloppio taught him at Padua, and Bartolomeo Eustachi at Rome. By 1560, and possibly even by 1559, he was at Bologna, where he received the doctorate in medicine on 24 March 1562 and where his researches were guided by Ulisse Aldrovandi and Giulio Cesare Aranzio. At Bologna he lectured on logic and surgery; and at Bologna his first two publications, tables on human anatomy, were issued. For a time he also taught at Perugia.

A brilliant career seemed assured, but letters written in 1566 by his friend Joachim Camerarius the Younger tell of Coiter’s arrest and imprisonment, first in Rome and then in Bologna. It is generally assumed that his Protestantism was responsible and that he offended the Inquisition. By the fall of 1566 he was back in Germany, where Camerarius smoothed the path for him. He served Pfalzgraf Ludwig VI at Amberg and taught there until 1569, when he became physician to the city of Nuremberg. Documents in Nuremberg and Erlangen, passages in his works, and inscriptions in copies of these works that he presented to friends attest his anatomical and medical activities in Nuremberg and provide details concerning the publication of the treatises which appeared in that city. Bodies of criminals furnished opportunities for dissection, and his daily medical practice fostered an attention to pathology. Among physicians he associated not only with Camerarius but also with Georg Palm, Heinrich Wolff, Melchior Ayrer, Franz Renner, and Thomas Erastus of Heidelberg and Basel. On more than one occasion he had sharp brushes with barber surgeons and quacks. The eminent families Imhof and Kress were served by him. He often traveled outside Nuremberg to treat magisterial, noble, and ecclesiastical patients.

Coiter’s longest excursion from Nuremberg took place from the fall of 1575 to the spring of 1576, when he attended Pfalzgraf Johann Casimir on his expedition to France in support of the Huguenot cause. Coiter did not return from this journey; his death was the result not of military action but of illness, possibly typhus, after peace had been declared and the army was returning to Germany. He left a widow, Helena, who was a foreigner and who was granted permission to remain in Nuremberg two years longer without citizenship.

In a short life of forty-two years Coiter effected significant advances in biological knowledge. His early works on human anatomy were expressly intended for students, as he himself states and as their tabular form favors. In them he still adheres to Galenic doctrine, and they have no essential significance for the history of anatomy. The treatises published at Nuremberg, however, display a greater maturity; a realization that dissection is the most important part of anatomy (both normal and pathological); an appreciation of the work of Vesalius (of whose contributions to anatomy he said, “Incomparabili industria stupendoque ingenio, hanc artem omnibus quasi suis numeris absoluit” [“With incomparable industry and amazing genius he perfected this art in almost every respect.”]), Fallopio (notes on whose lectures he published in 1575), and Eustachi; and original thought. The treatise on the skeleton of the fetus and of a child six months old points up the differences between these and adult skeletons and shows where ossification begins.

With a solid grounding in human (especially skeletal) anatomy, Coiter was well prepared for exploration in comparative anatomy. He covered almost the entire vertebrate series—amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals—and was the first to raise this field to independent status in biology, although he emphasized points of difference from human anatomy rather than points of similarity. He recorded what he saw in the living hearts of cats, reptiles, frogs, and several fishes. He called attention to the orbicular muscle of the hedgehog and described the poison gland of the adder. Coiter’s investigation of avian anatomy is particularly significant: he depicted the skeletons of the adder. Coiter’s investigation of avain anatomy is particularly significant: he depicted the skeletons of the crane, the starling, the cormorant, and the parrot; provided a general classification, in tabular form, of the birds known to him; and discovered the tongue and hypobranchial apparatus of the woodpecker.

Coiter knew the value of good drawings and himself signed most of the finely drawn copper engravings that illustrate his anatomical work. Case histories are provided in the interesting miscellany of anatomical and surgical observations, and in these for the first time Coiter described the spinal ganglia and the musculus corrugator supercilii. An interest in anatomical nomenclature and etymology and in balneology is often apparent in his works.

Unillustrated but nonetheless epochal are Coiter’s studies on the development of the chick, begun in Bologna with the encouragement of Aldrovandi and published in Nuremberg; based on observations made on twenty successive days, they presented the first systematic statement since the three-period description (after three days of incubation, after ten, after twenty) provided by Aristotle two millennia before. Coiter worked without a lens but also without Scholastic influence: “There is no futile quarreling over trifles, no pompous arguments, no theoretical bias, and, except for a few references to Aristotle, Lactantius, Columella and Albertus no appeal to authority, but simply a calm, dispassionate, impartial and concise record of his observations with implicit confidence that the truth with prevail” (Adelmann; p. 333). Twenty-eight years later (1600) Aldrovandi published his account; Girolamo Fabrizio followed in his posthumous work of 1621, Nathaniel Highmore and William Harvey in 1651, and Marcello Malpighi in 1673 and 1675.


I. Original Works. Tabulae externarum partium humani corporis (Bologna, 1564) is included, with some changes, in the Externarum et internarum principalium humani corporis partium tabulae, as is, in revised form, De ossibus, et cartilaginibus corporis humani tabulae (Bologna, 1566). Externarum et internarum principalium humani corporis partium tabulae (Nuremberg, 1572, 1573) contains “Introduction in anatomiam,” “Externarum humani corporis partium tabulae,” “Internarum humani corporis partium tabulae,” “De ovorum gallinaceorum generations primo exordio progressuque, et pulli gallinacei creationis orodine” (trans. and ed. with notes and intro. by Howard B. Adelmann, in Annals of Medical History, n.s. 5 [1933], 327–341, 444–457; trans. and analyzed seriatim at many points, listed in the index, in Adelmann’s Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology, 5 vols. [Ithaca, N.Y., 1966]), “Tabulae ossium humani corporis,” “Ossium tum humani foetus adhuc in utero existentis, vel imperfecti abortus, tum infantis dimidium annum nati brevis historia atque explicatio” (also in Hendrik Eysson, Tractatus anatomicus & medicus, De ossibus infantis, cognoscendis, conservandis, & curandis [Groningen, 1659], pp. 169–201; and, after Eysson, in Daniel Le Clere and Jean Jacques Manget, Bibliotheca anatomica [Geneva], 2 [1699], 509–512), “Analogia ossium humanorum, simiae, et verae, et caudatae, quae cynocephali similis est, atque vulpis,” “Tabulae oculorum humanorum,” “De auditus instrumento,” and “Observationum anatomicarum chirurgicarumque miscellanea varia, ex humanis corporibus… deprompta,” Lectiones Gabrielis Fallopii de partibus similaribus, ex diversis exemplaribus a Volchero Coiter… collectae. His accessere diversorum animalium sceletorum explications, iconibus…illustratae…autore eodemk Volcher Coiter, (Nuremberg, 1575) has appended to it to the treatise “De avium sceletis et praecipuis musculis.” Extensive selections from the published works, with English translation, are furnished in Volcher Coiter B. W. Th. Nuyens and A. Schierbeek, eds., no. 18 of Opuscula Selecta Neerlandicorum de Arte Medica (Amsterdam, 1955). Herrlinger (1952) published, from MSS in Nuremberg, Coiter’s “Gutachten zur Sondersiechenschaui” and “Ein ordenttlich Regiementt wie man sich im Wildt Badt haltten sol.” His “Vom rechten Gebrauch dess Carls Padt bei Ellenbogen” appeared in the Anzeiger of the Germanisches Nationl museum (1891), 10–18.

II. Secondary Literature. On Coiter or his work, see B. W. Th. Nuyens, “Doctor Volcher Coiter, 1534–1576?” in Nederlands tijdschrift voor geneeskunde, 77 (1933), 5383–5401; and “De laatste tien Jaren van Volcher Coiter’s Leven,” ibid., 79 (1935), 2653–2659; Walton B. McDaniel, II, “Notes on the “Tractatus de ossibus foetus’ of Volcher Coiter,” in Annals of Medical History, n.s. 10 (1938). 189–190; F. J. Colle, A History of Comparative Anatomy (London, 1949), pp. 73–83; Dorothy M. Schullian, “New Documents on Volcher Coiter,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 6 (1951), 176–194; Elsa Guerdrum Allen, The History of American Ornithology Before Audubon (Philadelphia, 1951), pp. 405–410 (this is Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s. 41 , pt. 3); and Robert Herrlinger, Volcher Coiter, 1534–1576 (Nuremberg, 1952); and “News on Coiter,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 12 (1957), 79–79–80.

Coiter’s portrait (1575) in oils, attributed to Nicolas Neufchatel and representing him demonstrating the muscles of the arm, with the écorché he had constructed on his left and a shelf of medical classics behind him, is preserved in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, at Nuremberg; there are later portraits at Weimar and Amsterdam, and there is a copper engraving (1669) by J. F. Leonhart, copies of which are in Nuremberg, Coburg, Copenhagen, and Ithaca, New York.

Dorothy M. Schullian