Winsløw, Jacob(or Jacques-Bénigne)

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(b. Odense, Denmark, 17 April 1669; d. Paris, France, 3 April 1760)


Winsløw was the eldest of the thirteen children of Peder Jacobsen Winsløw, dean of the Protestant Church of Our Lady in Odense, and Martha Bruun, whose own father had held the same post. He received his early education from his father, who was learned in both linguistics and archaeology, and at the Odense secondary school. He entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology in 1687. Although he delivered several sermons, Winsløw was soon attracted to the natural sciences, inspired by Oliger Jacobaeus and Caspar Bartholin the younger. From 1691 to 1696 he attended Borch’s college and worked under the county barber-surgeon Johannes de Buchwald. Although Buchwald was the best surgeon in Copenhagen, Winsløw concentrated on anatomy, since the sight of blood alarmed him; he himself never performed an operation. He soon became Bartholin’s prosector, and the latter was so pleased with his public anatomical demonstrations that he promoted him anatomicus regius, a post held by Winsløw’s granduncle, Niels Stensen, some twenty years before.

In 1697 Winsløw was awarded a royal grant and accompanied Buchwald to the Netherlands, where he not only studied anatomy, but also received practical training in clinical medicine, surgery, and obstetrics, including private instruction with a midwife. These studies, together with his association with a number of Dutch scientists–including Johann Rau, Pieter Verduyn, and Hendrik van Deventer–convinced him of the value of the practical application of basic anatomical and physiological investigations.

Winsløw stayed in the Netherlands for fourteen months, then moved to Paris, where he began to study anatomy and surgery with J.-G. Duverney. A spiritual crisis intervened, however, inspired by discussions with his friend Ole Worm and by the treatises of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet. After a series of conversations with the latter, in 1699 Winsløw converted to Roman Catholicism (taking his baptismal name Bénigne from Bossuet), whereupon his subsidy from the Danish government was terminated. With the help of Bossuet and other Catholic patrons he was soon able to resume his work with Duverney, and in 1704 Winsløw became a medical licentiate at the Hôtel Dieu and was authorized to practice as a physician in the city of Paris. Duverney made him his assistant in anatomy and surgery at the Jardin du Roi.

Winsløw became a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1708; he also maintained a busy medical practice, was appointed physician at the Hôpital Général and at Bicëtre in 1709, assumed Duverney’s duties at the Jardin du Roi in 1721, and was made docteur-régent of the Paris Faculty of Medicine in 1728. In 1743 Winsløw became full professor of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi; he held this post until 1758, when he was obliged to retire because of extreme deafness. On 18 February 1745 Winsløw dedicated the new anatomical theater of the Paris Faculty of Medicine, a building that still stands at 13 rue de la Bûcherie. Although in the address he made upon that occasion he referred to himself as being merely the successor of Riolan, Bartholin, and Stensen, he was in fact regarded as the greatest European anatomist of his day, and attracted a number of able students, including Albrecht von Haller.

Winsløw’s own anatomical studies combined a talent for making observations with systematic thoroughness. Between 1711 and 1743 he published, nearly thirty treatises, on a variety of subjects, in the Mémoires de Académie royal des sciences. Among these works was a series of investigations, published between 1715 and 1726, of the course of the various muscles, in which Winsløw showed that a single muscle does not function alone as a flexor or supinator, but rather that muscles work in groups as synergists, and always in relation to antagonists. In another tract of 1715 he described the foramen between the greater and lesser sacs of the peritoneum that is now named for him.

In “Sur les mouvements de la tête, du col et du reste de l’épine du dos” of 1730, Winsløw was the first to describe exactly the function of the small intervertebral joints. While in “. . . certaines mouvement avec les deux mains à la fois . . . puls facilement en sens contraire qu’en même sens” (1739), he noted that this effect is caused by nerve crossings in the brain and spinal cord, and not by any action of the muscles. In 1742 he published an account, based on comparative anatomical studies, of the function of the digastric muscles in opening the mouth through lowering the mandible. He also found occasion, in two articles published between 1740 and 1742, to inveigh against the formidable corsets worn by women at that time, and between 1733 and 1743 published a series of treatises on monsters, in which he demonstrated that congenital malformations resulted from faulty predispositions and were not lesions of a normal fetus.

Winsløw’s best-known work was his Exposition anatomique de la structure du corps humain, first published in 1732, then in a large number of subsequent editions and translations. The Exposition was the first treatise on descriptive anatomy, and, in its elimination of extraneous physiological details and hypothetical explanations, represented a pioneer work of exact scientific research. It was used by students and surgeons well into the following century. In it, following Stensen, Winsløw introduced a number of exact new terms, still used today, including the corpora quadrigemina anteriora et posteriora (formerly called nates and testes) and, for the ganglion chain, the “grand sympathetic nerve,” the smaller branches being the “lesser sympathetic nerves.”

Winsløw remained in Paris for the rest of his life, although he was invited on several occasions to return to Denmark. Only one of his treatises. Mortis incertae signa (1740), was translated into Danish(1868).


I. Original Works. There is a full list of Winsløw’s works in H. Ehrencron-Müller, Forfatterlexikon, IX(Copenhagen, 1932), 124–128. His major writings are Exposition anatomique de la structure du corps humain (Paris, 1732; many later eds., 4 vols., 1732–1776); English trans. by G. Douglas. An Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the human Body, 2 vols. (London, 1733); German trans, by Georg Matthiae, Anatomische Abhandlung von dem Bau des menschlichen Leibes, 4 vols. (Berlin, 1733); enl. ed. by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus, 5 vols. (Basel, 1758), Latin trans. by E. Gallico, Expositio anatomica structurae corporis humani, 4 vols.(Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1758), also in 2 vols. (Venice, 1758); Italian trans., Esposizione anatomica della struttura del corpo humano, 4 vols. (Bologna, 1743; Naples, 1746, 1763,1775; Venice, 1747, 1767); and Quaestio medicao-chirurgica . . . an mortis incertae signa minus incerta a chirurgicis, quam ab aliis experimentis (Paris, 1740), also in French (Paris, 1742), Italian (Naples, 1744, 1775), Swedish (Stockholm, 1751), German (Leipzig, 1754, and Danish (Sorø, 1868). His autobiogrphy is L’autobiographie de J.-B. Winsløw,; Vilhelm Maar, ed. (Paris–Compenhagen, 1912).

II. Secondary Literature. See E. Hintzsche, Albrecht v. Haller Tagebuch der Studienreise nach London, paris (Bern. 1968). 35; V. Maar, “Lidt on J.-B. Winsløw,” in Festskrift til Julius Petersen. V. Meisen Prominent Danish Scientists (Copenhagen, 1932), 53–60; R. Schär, Albrecht von Hallers neue anatomisch-physiologische Befunde (Bern, 1958), 50; E. Snorrason, L’anatomiste J. B. Winsløw, 1669–1760 (Copenhagen, 1969); and T. Vetter, “La vie active de Jacques-Benigne Winslow,” in Nordisk medicin (1971), 107–129.

E. Snorrason

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Winsløw, Jacob(or Jacques-Bénigne)

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