Ruysch, Frederik

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(b. The Hague, Nether lands, 23 March 1638; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, 22 February 1731)

botany, obstetrics, anatomy, medicine.

Ruysch was descended from an old and notable family whose members held posts in various city governments, including those of Utrecht and Amsterdam. His great-great-grandfather was councillor to the bishop of Liège; his great-grandfather was councillor to the duke of Arensberg and, later, pensionary of Amsterdam; and his grandfather was secretary of the audit office. The Dutch war with Spain seems to have brought a change in 1576 in the fortunes of the family.

Ruysch was the son of Hendrik Ruysch, a secretary in the service of the state, and Anna van Berchem. Probably he attended the grammer school in The Hague. The early death of his father may explain Frederik’s apprenticeship as a boy in an apothecary’s shop. In 1661, even though not yet admitted to the apothecaries’ guild, he prepared drugs and opened a shop in The Hague. The board of the guild ordered him to close the shop and for-bade him to sell remedies to anyone until he had successfully passed the necessary examination, as he did on 16 and 17 June 1661. He was then admitted confrater in the guild and quickly reopened his shop. In the same year he married Maria Post, daughter of Pieter Post, the well-known architect of Frederik Henry, prince of Orange. Of this marriage many (perhaps twelve) children were born; but only two are known; Hendrik and Rachel, who married the painter Jurriaan Pool and was herself a well-known painter. Her works were bought by Johann Wilhelm, the elector palatinate. Rachel helped her father make anatomical preparations in his old age.

In his youth Ruysch had a passion for anatomy: and he himself told how he would ask grave diggers to open graves so that he could make anatomical investigations. Soon after his marriage, he began his medical studies at Leiden. To attend the lectures there, he had to travel from The Hague, Where he lived and managed a chemist’ shop. His teachers included Johannes van Horne, who was professor of anatomy and surgery, and Franciscus Sylvius, who taught practical medicine. On 28 July 1664 he received the M.D. at Leiden (not, as is sometimes reported, at Franeker) for his thesis Depleuritide, which was written under van Horne’s guidance. He then established a medical practice in the Hague and almost immediately was overwhelmed with plague victims. During this time, he also conducted serious anatomical studies and continued them in his spare time. But he remained somewhat aloof from the experiments on live dogs that were then being carried sout by de Graaf and Swammerdam (and attended by Steno) in the Leiden laboratories.

In 1665 Ruysch settled a dispute between van Horne and Louis de Bils, a self-taught, unqualified anatomist who claimed to be able to preserve corpses for years, when the latter cited van Horne’s name in his fantastic theory on the course of the lymph in the lymph vessels. Although Bils firmly denied the existence of valves in these vessels. Ruysch succeeded in demonstrating their presence. His research, published as Dilucidatio valvularum in vasis lymphaticis et lacteis (1665), ended the controversy.

On 29 December 1666 Ruysch was named praelector of anatomy for the surgeon’s guild in Amsterdam. He attended the session of the guild on 12 January 1667 and soon moved to Amsterdam, Ruysch held this post until his death in 1731. He was annoyed when, in 1727, at the age of eighty-nine, the burgomasters appointed Willem Roëll as his assistant without consulting him. As praelector anatomiae, Ruysch taught anatomy to the surgeons and performed the public dissections in the winter months. In this role he was painted twice with the masters of the guild: in 1670 by Adriaan Backer and in 1683 by Johan van Neck. The latter painted Ruysch dissecting a child while his son Hendrik (then about age twenty) is pictured as a boy holding the skeleton of a child, Also, Pool twice made a portrait of Ruysch. In 1672, after the death of Hendrik von Roonhuyse, Ruysch was also appointed city obstetrician. Thus he contributed to the education of midwives, giving one lesson a month and four demonstrations a year on female corpses. Ruysch held this post for forty years: in 1712 he retired in favor of his son Hendrik.

In 1679 Ruysch was appointed doctor of the court of justice. He reported on persons wounded or killed in robberies or quarrels—rather frequent occurrences in the great port of Amsterdam. Ruysch thus gathered extensive experience in forensic medicine. On 24 March 1685 he was appointed professor of botany at the Athenaeum II-lustre and thus became supervisor of the botanical garden. He delivered three botanical lectures a week: to the surgeons, to the apothecaries’ apprentices, and to the apothecaries. From 1692 he was assisted at the garden by Petrus Hotton and, later, by Caspar Commelin, who lectured on exotic plants. With F. Kiggelaar, Ruysch wrote a description of the rare plants in the garden.

Although Ruysch ably fulfilled these varied responsibilities for many years, he considered himself primarily an anatomist. He gave private courses in anatomy to foreign students and devoted himself throughout his life to making anatomical preparations. His skill in this art remains unsurpassed. The technique of injecting had already been used by Swammerdam and de Graaf during his student years at Leiden. De Graaf had invented a special syringe for this purpose, but Ruysch developed his own method and was thus able to prepare various organs (for example, the liver and the kidneys) and to preserve entire corpses for years. In the summer of 1696 he announced the dissection of bodies “which appear still to be alive but which have been dead for about two years”.

Ruysch himself never disclosed the composition of the fluids he used, but in 1743 J. C. Rieger revealed that he used a mixture of talc, white wax, and cinnabar for injecting vessels, whereas his embalming fluid (liquor balsamicus) consisted of alcohol (prepared from wine or corn) to which some black pepper was added. Ruysch drew on his art not only for strict medical science but also for flights of fancy. He often made up preparations in a rather romantic, dramatic way. He prepared the corpse of a child as if it were alive so that Peter the Great was inclined to kiss it. A hydrocephalic child was prepared, seated on a cushion and with a placenta in its hands.

Ruysch displayed these preparations in several small rented houses in Amsterdam, and this “cabinet” became a major attraction for foreign visitors. He frequently added appropriate inscriptions referring to the brevity of life. Ruysch wrote a description (in both Dutch and Latin) of his collection in a series of ten books: Thesaurus anatomicus primus through Thesaurus anatomicus decimus. In 1715 he announced the sale of his collection. But no buyers presented themselves before 1717, when Peter the Great bought it for 30,000 guilders. It was carefully packed and transported by boat to Russia. The tale that the collection was destroyed by the sailors drinking the embalming fluid seems not to be true, or at least only partly so. Several pieces of the collection (for example, skeletons of children) are held by the Museum of the Academy of Sciences in Leningrad: the collection originally contained 935 items. Immediately after the sale, the energetic Ruysch, age seventy-nine, began to set up a new collection, which, after his death, was sold publicly. The greater part of it went to the king of Poland, John Sobieski, who entrusted it to the University of Wittenberg.

Ruysch had many friends and admirers, but also several critics with whom he became involved in scientific polemics–namely, G. Bidloo. J. J. Rau, and R. Vieussens. Boerhaave, his junior by thirty years, was a close friend. Ruysch visited Boerhaave at Leiden, and the latter seems to have passed several summer holidays with Ruysch. The friends’ opinions diverged on some points of anatomy, including the structure of the glands. Ruysch rejected the view of Malpighi that the liver contains glandular tissue (parenchyma). Boerhaave supposed that Ruysch was misled by injecting the embalming fluid under too great a pressure. In 1721 the two friends published together two letters on the subject– Opusculum anatomicum de fabrica glandulaurum.

In addition to the valves in the lymph vessels, Ruysch described, independently of other, the arteria bronchialis. He also studied the eye and described a thin layer behind the retina (formerly called tunica Ruyschiana), as well as a circular muscle in the fundus uteri.

Foreign honors came relatively late to Ruysch. In 1705 he became a member of the Academia Leopoldo-Carolina. He was also elected to the Royal Society of London (1720) and to the Acadeémie des Sciences (1727) in Newton’s place. At the end of his life Ruysch suffered a fracture of the collum femoris. The site of his grave is not known.


I. Original Works. Ruysch’s major works are Disputatio medica inauguralis de pleuritide (Leiden, 1664);Dilucidatio valvularum in vasis lymphaticis et lacteis (The Hague, 1665: Leiden, 1667: Amsterdam, 1720, 2nd ed. 1742): a facs. of the 1665 ed., with intro. by A. M. Luyendijk-Eishout, appeared in Dutch Classics on the History of Science, no. 11 (Nieuwkoop, 1964): Epistolae anatomicae problematicae, 14 vols. (Amsterdam, 1696–1701):Museum anatomicum Ruyschianum, sive catalogus rariorum quae in Authoris aedibus asservantur(Amsterdam, 1691; 2nd ed., 1721; 2rd ed, 1737); Thesaurus anatomicus ... , 10 vols. (Amsterdam, 1701–1716), all with Dutch trans.;Curae posteriores seuthesaurus anatomicus omnium precedentium maximus (Amsterdam, 1724): and Curae renovatae seu thesaurus anatomicus post curas posteriores novus (Amsterdam, 1733).

Other writings are Observationum anatomico-chirurgicarum centuria (Amsterdam, 1691: 2nd ed., 1721: 3rd ed., 1737); Thesaurus animalium primus (Amsterdam, 1728): Responsio ad Godefridi Bidloi libellum cui nomen vindicias inscripsit(Amsterdam, 1697: 2nd ed.,1738);Adversariorum anatomico-medico-chirugicorum decus prima (Amsterdam, 1717: 2nd ed., 1729), decas secunda (17200. decas tertia (1728); Opusculum anatomicum de fabrica glandularum in corpore humano (Leiden, 1722:Amsterdam, 1733), written with Boerhaave: Tractatio anatomica de musculo in fundo uteri (Amsterdam, 1723), with Dutch trans. by A. Lambrechts as Over de baar moeder-, of de ronde spier van de lijfmoeder (Amsterdam, 1726: 2nd ed., 1731): Opera omnia, 4 vols. (Amsterdam, 1721): Opera omnia anatomico- medico-chirurgica huc usque edita 5 vols, (Amsterdam, 1737): Alle de ontleed-genees-en heelkundige werken van Fr. Ruysch(Amsterdam, 1744), Dutch trans. by Y.G. Arlebout: and Horti medici Amstelodamensis rariorum descriptio ... , (amsterdam, 1697), written with F. Kiggelaar.

II. Secondary Literature. On Ruysch and his work. see Bernard Fontenelle, “Eacute;loge de M. Ruysch” in Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences pour l’année 1731 avec les mémoires de mathématique et physique pour la mênte année, tirés des registres de cette Académie; N.T. Hazen, “Johnson’s Life of Frederic Ruysch”, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine,7 (1939), 324; J.G. de Lint, “Frederik Ruysch”, in Nieuw Nederlandsch Biographisch Woordenboek, III, 1108 – 1109; A.M. Luyendijk- Elshout’s intro. to the facs. ed of the Dilucidatio valvularum (see above): P. Scheltema, “Het leven van Frederik Ruysch” (M,D. diss., Unic.of Leiden. 1886); and V.F. Schreiber’s intro. to the Operaomnia (see above), also in the Dutch translation.

G. A. Lindeboom