Rudbeck, Olof

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(b. Västerås, Sweden, 1630; d. Uppsala, Sweden, 17 September 1702)

medicine, anatomy, botany.

Rudbeck was the son of Johannes Rudbeckius, bishop of Västerås, and the most important Swedish ecclesiastic of his time. He received his early schooling in Västerås, then, in 1648, entered the University of Uppsala to study medicine. Although the Uppsala Faculty of Medicine to was not a distinguished one, Rudbeck learned at least the fundamentals of anatomy and botany from one of his professors there, Johannes Franckenius. Rudbeck then began to work on his own, particularly in animal anatomy.

Since Harvey had published his discovery of the circulation of the blood twenty years earlier, the attention of anatomists had turned to the systems of vessels in animals. Rudbeck was accordingly drawn to this subject and in the fall of 1650, when he was not yet twenty years old, reported on previously unknown vessels (lymphatic vessels) that carried a colorless fluid from the liver. At the same time, and independently of Pecquet, he discovered the thoracic duct, through which the lacteal vessels discharge chyle into the veins. Rudbeck performed a number of systematic dissections and vivisections of calves, sheep, cats, and dogs, and by the following year was able to elucidate the structure of this system and to demonstrate its connections with the lymph glands.

In 1652 Rudbeck demonstrated his anatomical discoveries, using a dog as his subject, before Queen Christina and her court at Uppsala. It might thus be considered that he had communicated them at this time, although he postponed publication. Instead, he brought out a preliminary dissertation on the circulation of the blood, De circulatione sanguinis (1652), in which he discussed Harvey’s still controversial doctrine in terms similar to those employed by Johannes de Wale and Thomas Bartholin, but in addition presented arguments based on his own experiments. Only then, in the summer of 1653, did he publish his short work on the lymphatic system, Nova exercitatio anatomica, exhibens ductus hepaticos aquosos et vasa glandularum serosa, a clear and convincing description of the newly discovered vessels (the vasa serosa) and of their course and valves, the lymph glands, and the nature of the lymphatic fluid.

Rudbeck’s delay in publishing his findings led to a bitter priority dispute. Thomas Bartholin and his assistant Michael Lyser had been conducting research in Copenhagen on the lymphatic system at about the same time that Rudbeck was doing his work, and in spring 1653, a few weeks before Rudbeck published his paper, Bartholin brought out one of his own, Vasa lymphatica. In 1654 Siboldus Hemsterhuis published both papers in his Messis aurea triennalis, and Rudbeck’s originality came into question. While Bartholin remained aloof from the controversy, his student Martin Bogdan attacked Rudbeck’s work. Rudbeck, who was in Holland at the time, began the dispute with some remarks directed against Bartholin, published in Hemsterhuis’ work, and Bogdan immediately issued a separate pamphlet accusing Rudbeck of plagiarism. Rudbeck defended himself with Insidiae structae (1654), and Bogdan promptly responded with Apologia pro vasis lymphaticis, published in the same year. Rudbeck offered his final statement of the matter in 1657 in Ad Thomam Bartholinum danum epistola, in which lie reiterated his account of his discoveries and passionately repudiated Bartholin’s claims to priority.

Amid these disputes, Rudbeck moved from Holland, where he completed his medical education at the University of Leiden (under Johannes van Horne, among others), to Sweden, where lie was in 1655 appointed assistant professor in the Medical Faculty of Uppsala University. In 1660 lie was appointed full professor. An enthusiast in all that lie did, Rudbeck set out to raise the Medical Faculty from the state of decay into which it had fallen. To this end, he used his own money to establish a botanical garden, which soon became one of the best in Europe. In 1662–1663 lie also built (partly with his own hands) a spacious anatomical theater, which lie had designed after the Anatomicum in Padua. This theater (which is still extant) was erected on the roof of the university building called the Gustavianum.

Rudbeck extended his activities to encompass reform of the entire university. He designed a new building to house it, created an institute for the physical education of the sons of the nobility, and established a workshop with models of machines for technological instruction. He was also active as an architect, and built houses, bridges, and water conduits. He printed his own books, and organized the musical life of the university (he himself composed music and, upon request, sang, in a great bass voice that is said to have drowned out the trumpets and the drums). He was also a warm defender of scientific liberty and an active supporter of Cartesian philosophy, a subject of heated controversy at Uppsala in the 1660’s and 1680’s.

Rudbeck’s interest in anatomy and the teaching of medicine gradually waned as he pursued these other projects. From the 1670’s lie devoted most of his efforts to patriotic historical works; inspired by early Swedish historians, Rudbeck took up the notion that Sweden was the cradle of civilization, Plato’s lost Atlantis from which the Greeks, Phoenicians, and other early peoples had received their knowledge and gods. He developed this idea in his bizarre an overwhelming four-volume work, Atland eller Manhem (commonly called Atlantica), published in Swedish and Latin (1679–1702), which achieved considerable European notoriety.

At the same time, Rudbeck undertook his most important botanical work. About 1670 lie began to plan, with typical lack of moderation, an illustrated book that would describe all known plants. He was inspired in this enterprise by the herbarium of Joachim Burser, which had been donated to Uppsala in 1666, and lie made Gaspard Bauhin’s Pinax his model in nomenclature and species definition. He employed a large number of draftsmen and wood engravers, including his daughters and his son Olof, and set them to work; by 1690 some 2,000 blocks had been cut, and another 1,200 were added in the next ten years. Rudbeck and an even larger staff concurrently worked on an equally comprehensive series of hand-drawn and handcolored illustrations, all of them, like the woodcuts, life-size wherever possible. The first two parts of the woodcuts appeared in 1701 and 1702; entitled Campus Elysius, they contained rough but clear and beautiful woodcuts of grasses, lilies, and orchids. It is estimated the entire work should have comprised about 7,000 species, but the great fire that swept Uppsala in 1702 destroyed almost all of the finished blocks, together with Rudbeck’s collections, books, and manuscripts. He died shortly thereafter.

Rudbeck’s important work as an anatomist was, perhaps, marred by his dispute with Bartholin. It is now clear that both men worked independently and that both should properly be considered to have discovered the lymphatic system. Although it is certain that Bartholin published first, and that he gave the lymphatic glands their present name, it is equally certain that Rudbeck was the first to demonstrate the glands and to recognize their importance. Rudbeck’s published description of the lymphatic system is, moreover, the more complete and clear one.

As a botanist, Rudbeck founded the tradition of natural history at Uppsala from which the young Linnaeus later profited. Rudbeck’s son, Olof (1660횪1740), was a more direct link, succeeding his father in 1691 as professor of medicine at Uppsala. The younger Rudbeck was a competent botanist and zoologist, whose De fundamentali plantarum notitia rite acquirenda, published at Utrecht in 1690, may be considered a precursor of Linnaeus’ work in reforming the botanical system. (He also wrote a work, with colored illustrations, on the birds of Sweden, which is still extant.) About 1730 he became Linnaeus’ patron and teacher and was instrumental in inspiring the fruitful journey to Swedish Lapland that Linnaeus undertook in 1732.


I. Original Works. Rudbeck’s most important anatomical and botanical writings are cited in the text. His Nova exercitatio has been printed in facsimile (Uppsala, 1930) and translated into English, with an introduction by Göran Liljestrand, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 11 (1942), 304–339. He also published three catalogues of the plants in the botanical garden in Uppsala, the last and most extensive being Hortus botanicus (Uppsala, 1685). Ninety woodcuts of the Campus Elysius were published by J. E. Smith as Reliquiae Rudbeckianae (London, 1789). A complete bibliography of the works of both Rudbecks, father and son, is in Johannes Rudbeck, Bibliotheca Rudbeckiana (Stockholm, 1918).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no modern biography of Rudbeck. His anatomical work, with a general background, is treated by Erik Nordenskiöld in The History of Biology (New York, 1928), 145–147. On his work on the circulation of the blood, see Sten Lindroth, “Harvey, Descartes, and Young Olaus Rudbeck,” in Journal of the History of Medicine, 12 (1957), 209–219. The best recent discussions of Rudbeck’s discovery of the lymphatic vessels and his polemic with Bartholin are Nils von Hofsten, “Upptäckten av bröstgängen och lymfkärlssystemet,” in Lychnos (1939), 262–288; and Axel Garboe, Thomas Bartholin, I (Copenhagen, 1949), 120–173. For Rudbeck’s botanical works, see Gunnar Eriksson, Botanikens historia is Sverige intill âr 1800 (Uppsala, 1969), 71–76, 135–138, and the bibliography.

Sten Lindroth

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