A forgotten chapter in natural history: the taxidermy of man

By Marieke Hendriksen

Having written a book on eighteenth-century anatomical collections, I know a thing or two about historical techniques for preserving (parts of) the human body. As I am interested in natural history collections more generally, I also did some research on the preservation of animal bodies, and even took a taxidermy course myself. However, recently I realised that the preservation of human and animal bodies were historically even closer connected than I had imagined. Yet ideas about which parts of the human body could and should be preserved, and how, diverged greatly, particularly when it comes to skin, or taxidermy. Taxidermy, from the Greek τάξις (taxis) and  δέρμα (derma – I am adding those for people who may not read Greek script), literally means ‘the arranging of skin’.

Fragment of an engraving of the anatomical theatre of Leiden University, early 17th century, showing visitors who appear to discuss a human skin. Contemporary engraving by Willem Swanenburgh; drawing by Jan van ‘t Woudt (Johannes Woudanus).

There are a few known cases of attempts to preserve human skins in their entirety before 1800 – for example, there was a human skin in the Leiden anatomical theatre in the seventeenth century – but that wasn’t stuffed, and such attempts appear to have been altogether unsuccessful. If human skin was preserved, it was mostly small pieces, which were used to study things like skin colour and structure, tattoos, or pathologies. By the end of the eighteenth century, the preservation of an entire human skin in a lifelike pose was of little interest to anatomists. Normal internal anatomy would be studied through dissection and the creation of preparations and skeletons, and pathologies of the skin could be preserved by making preparations of small sections of skin. As healthy skin can be studied perfectly easily in live subjects, there was little reason to pursue the taxidermy of man. This is reflected in anatomical handbooks like Thomas Pole’s 1790 Anatomical Instructor (reprinted in 1813), which gave detailed directions for numerous methods to preserve parts of the human and animal body, including entire heads and foetuses, but did not say anything about how to preserve only skin. On the contrary, Pole advised to remove the cuticle from a head that was to be preserved,  as this would give ‘a brightness to the complexion’.[1]

Jeremy Bentham’s ‘preserved’ head is not on display, but stored in an environmentally controlled safe. Copyright: UCL.

However, with the growing popularity of taxidermy – the mounting of animal skins in lifelike poses – and the rise of physical anthropology in the early nineteenth century, there were a number of experiments with human taxidermy, the most famous of which was probably Jeremy Bentham’s unsuccessful attempt to have his body made into an ‘auto-icon’ after this death. Then there was ‘el negro’ or ‘the negro of Banyoles’, whose faith was described by Dutch author Frank Westerman in his 2004 book El Negro en ik (‘El negro and I’). The remains of this young African San man were stuffed by two taxidermists, the French Verreaux brothers, in the 1830s, and remained on display in a local Museum in Banyoles, Spain, until 1997. Eventually his remains were send for burial in Botswana in 2000. Jules Pierre (1807-1837) and Jean Baptiste Édouard (1810-1868) Verreaux created taxidermy specimens of exotic animals for their father’s Parisian shop in natural historical objects, Maison Verreaux, and, as ‘el negro’ shows, used human bones for his models.

The head of the figure in ‘Arab Courier attacked by lions’ sits detached from the rest of the diorama during restoration work. Copyright: Nate Smallwood | Tribune – Review

For a long time, ‘el negro’ was the only known case of nineteenth-century human taxidermy. However, a recent discovery suggests that the Verreaux brothers used human remains more frequently. In 2016, a human skull was discovered in a mannequin that was part of an ensemble made by the Verreaux studio. Formerly known as “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions”, it was restored and returned to display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh under the title “Lion Attacking a Dromedary”. Although apparently no attempt was made to use human skin in the Pittsburgh diorama, these cases show that there was little reticence when it came to using human materials for taxidermy displays in the nineteenth century, particularly when the human in question was considered ‘exotic’. This is supported by the fact that a popular contemporary taxidermy manual, aimed specifically at museums and travelers, opened with a paragraph on the impossibility of applying taxidermy to man successfully. The book, written by the naturalist Sarah Bowdich (née Wallis, later Lee, 1791-1856) saw six editions – the first in 1820, the last in 1843.

After listing the necessary tools and giving a number of recipes for the cleansing and preservation fluids used in taxidermy, Bowdich opened the section on ‘the preparation of mammalia’ with a somewhat disappointed-sounding statement:

1. Of man 

All the efforts of man to restore the skin of his fellow creature to its natural form and beauty, have hitherto been fruitless: the trials which have been made have only produced mis-shapen, hideous objects, and so unlike nature, that they have never found a place in our collections.

Bowdich went on to discuss the life-like wet preparations made by Amsterdam anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638  – 1731) as ‘without doubt (…) very useful to science’, before switching to a description of a more successful practice – the preservation of skeletons. Given the tragic history of ‘el negro’ and many other violently obtained human remains in museum collections, it is a cold comfort that the naturalists of the nineteenth century failed at the taxidermy of their ‘fellow creature’.

[1] Pole, Thomas. The Anatomical Instructor ; or an Illustration of the Modern and Most Approved Methods of Preparing and Preserving the Different Parts of the Human Body and of Quadrupeds by Injection, Corrosion, Maceration, Distention, Articulation, Modelling, &C. London: Couchman & Fry, 1790: p.84.

Editing the Recipes Project – 5 Years On

Editorial: This is the second of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Amanda E. Herbert

Seminar at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Image courtesy of the author.
Seminar at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Image courtesy of the author.

My first post for the Recipes Project, “Early Modern Comfort Foods,” appeared in March 2013.  At the time, the blog was not quite a year old, but had already been getting some excellent attention.  Friends who knew that I worked on recipes kept sending me links to it, asking if I’d seen it and what I thought about the work that was being done.  But I was already hooked: from its very earliest posts, the RP offered a unique platform, a place for anyone who studied recipes – and especially early-career scholars – to share their newest research and to receive supported, structured feedback on their ideas.  I’m proud that we’ve continued this mission through to today.

There is a huge value in the openness and inclusivity of the RP.  Authors can, and do, create posts which follow a variety of forms and formats.  I’ve taken advantage of this myself, as both a contributor and an editor.  I’ve written posts constructed on a microhistorical level, out of snippets pulled straight out of the archive; that first “Comfort Foods” post was written from inside of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester MA, where I’d gone to do dissertation research on colonial British American recipes and commonplace books.  When that dissertation became a book, I wrote a couple of posts about the project as a whole, taking a macroscopic view of the roles played by recipes in early modern social networks.  When I got my first job, I brought the RP along with me into my classrooms and advising meetings.  I wrote about the ways that I taught with recipes for chocolate and for ink, and in partnership with talented undergraduates, I helped them to write about their own recipes research.  When I started the search for my next research project, I turned straight to the RP, exploring recipes holdings in libraries and archives around the world.  When I joined Lisa and Elaine as an RP editor in June 2014, it opened even more opportunities: organizing a themed series, writing round-ups, and participating in reflection posts like this one.  Along the way, my RP colleagues and friends have been exceptionally generous in writing posts to help recognize, publicize, and bring attention to my work.  And I’m beyond pleased that the RP has followed me to the Folger, where in the coming years we’ll continue to explore the library’s many amazing recipes sources.

Early-career scholars juggle a lot of different roles.  The RP, with its flexible format and warm, thoughtful community of scholars, offers those who study recipes the chance to share their work, in whatever form it’s taking.  As my own example – and those of many others – can prove, the RP can grow with you.  Supporting and promoting people who are just embarking on their careers is one of the most important things that the RP does, and it’s what I value most as a member of this group.

Herbal History Research Network: A recipe for collaboration

Anne Stobart outlines the history of the Herbal History Research Network.

Need for herbal history research

Historical recipes contain many plant ingredients, indeed my own recipe database on seventeenth-century household medicine shows 78% of ingredients were of plant origin.[1] Yet, the range of information and research available about these herbs in history is fairly patchy and can be hard to find. Back in 2008, nearing completion of my PhD, I sat down with some medical herbalist colleagues in a London cafe and we had a collective moan about the paucity of herbal history research. Although I had come across hundreds of plants used in early modern recipes, prescriptions, purchased remedies and advice, I knew little about the way these plants were obtained, used or understood in historical contexts. Like my colleagues, I had trained extensively in botany and pharmacology of plants (Figure 1), but there had been little time for exploring the history of herbal medicine. As a lecturer on a degree level programme for professional herbalists I found it challenging to advise students about doing historical dissertations – it seemed

Figure 1. The dispensary in a university training clinic.

unkind to warn them of the lack of good sources, both primary and secondary, but this shortfall could severely affect their ultimate grades, particularly if they had little training in historical methods. As I talked further with colleagues about how we could promote more and better herbal history research, we realised that this was also a need of many research fields: from garden history to social history, from gender studies to the history of medicine.

How we started

As a group we agreed to set up the Herbal History Research Network, and the minutes of our first meeting record that we aimed ‘to promote rigorous and scholarly research of herbs and herbal traditions in historical contexts; referencing and acknowledging credit of sources; exercising care and discrimination as to how information is disseminated’. Our founding members (Susan Francia, Barbara Lewis, Vicki Pitman, Anne Stobart, Nicky Wesson) made a case for funding

Figure 2. Critical Approaches to the History of Western Herbal Medicine (2014)

from the Wellcome Trust and, with the support of Middlesex University, we planned several day seminars in 2010 in London. Our seminars included expert speakers covering many aspects of classical, medieval and early modern medicine, from Galen’s simple medicines to Anglo-Saxon herbals and early modern midwifery manuals and much more. The seminars were well-attended and evaluation showed that the interdisciplinary nature of the event was welcomed by participants. A selection of the conference papers has since been edited and published by Bloomsbury Academic.[2] A paperback version is now available (Figure 2).

Some good partnerships

We have arranged further day seminars in some excellent venues, including University of Reading (Explaining the Actions: Researching Herbal Pharmacology in History, 2011), Bradford-on-Avon Quaker Meeting House (Communicating Herbal Knowledge in the Past, 2012), Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution (Gardens and Herbal History Research, 2013), RBG Kew (Illustration and Identification in the History of Herbal Medicine, 2014) and the Wellcome Library (Trade and Discovery in Herbal History, 2015 (Figure 3)).

The discovery of herbal medicines, engraving 1700-1799.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The advice and support from colleagues at these institutions has been most welcome and our events have often included extras, such as a visit to a botanical garden, always a plus! Attendance at these events confirms the interdisciplinary nature of herbal history, drawing in undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students, university historians and ethnobotanical researchers, medical herbalists and medical practitioners, heritage centre and museum curators and many more. Extra support has been made available to students through prize book vouchers that we were able to give to students who made the best poster presentations. Support from the professional bodies of medical herbalists has been especially welcome, including the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, National Institute of Medical Herbalists and Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners.

Further collaboration

To further encourage collaboration and networking, a Jiscmail subscription list has been established for researchers in the history of herbal medicine. The list is called HIST_HERB_MED. At the time of writing, over 120 subscribers have joined the list and they reflect a range of academic researchers, herbal practitioners and others actively involved in research. The list provides information about events and enables some discussion between medical herbalists and historians on specific issues. It is a good way to keep in touch with developments for individual researchers who are often plugging away alone.

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, we aim to borrow good practice from the experience of the Recipe Collective in developing a Herbal History website (all credit for setting this up to our colleague, Kimberley Walker). Here you can find out about our next seminar, based in the Midlands. The seminar theme is ‘Preservation Matters in the History of Herbal Medicine’, and it will be held on Wednesday 7th June 2017 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Full details of the programme and registration are online, and early registration attracts a discount. We welcome research student poster presentations at our seminars, so hope that colleagues will pass on details to likely contributors.

[1} Stobart A. (2016) Household medicine in seventeenth-century England, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 80.

[2] Francia S and Stobart A. (2014) Critical approaches to the history of western herbal medicine: From classical antiquity to the early modern period. London: Bloomsbury.

Recipes for Magic

By Frank Klassen

My house was remarkably crowded and had a bit of a holiday feel about it. It was mid-winter and twenty or so students from the University of Saskatchewan had taken up my invitation to try out a procedure and a device described in pre-modern magic manuscripts: molybdomancy and the Holy Almandal.

Chicago, Newberry Library, MS 5017, fol. 16v. Thanks to the Newberry Library for permission to use this image.

Reading a recipe or set of instructions is not the same thing as physically putting it all together and then trying it out. Anyone who loves to cook or sew or knit or build with wood knows this. But academics tend to shy away from doing this kind of thing, particularly historians of magic who generally don’t want to give the impression that they are in the business for practical reasons. Mercifully, the exercise was well worth my time and energy.

The description of molybdomancy in Thomas Aquinas and the seventeenth-century manuscript where I first encountered the technique disclose nothing about what it is like to actually do it. For a start, melting lead (or in our case lead-free solder) and pouring it into water or snow to divine the future was a huge amount of fun. For those familiar with the modern German New Year’s tradition of Bleigiessen this will not be a surprise, and the fun is certainly one of the reasons it continues to be employed today.

I was also surprised to find that we felt an instant sense of connection with the strange little lump of metal we extracted from the water after some hissing and sometimes a loud snap. One felt disappointed if it was boring and jealous of others whose lumps seemed more interesting. Those who got “a good one” often felt like they needed to keep it.

We also found by trying out some lead later in the evening that the different melting points of different metals produce slightly different results. The lead had a higher temperature an more thermal mass and tended to fracture less often.

What was most interesting to me as a historian of magic was discovering how crucial it was to have some kind of interpretive key (or expert interpreter). The lumps were evocative and often beautiful but generally very ambiguous if you were trying to discern a message in them. We used a modern list, which connected a wide variety of shapes with particular outcomes. Even then it took some work to decide if a lump was, say, a sword, flower, or shovel.

In light of this, the simplicity of the seventeenth-century text I knew made a good deal of sense. It says only that you will know you are bewitched if you find a face in the metal. We certainly got some faces so we may have some ill-intentioned witches in Saskatoon.

The centrepiece of the evening was the Holy Almandal, which is a curious intellectual artefact. It derives from a Sanskrit original and has significant similarities to modern Buddhist yantras (sometimes also used for magic), suggesting common ancestry. The Sanskrit word “mandala” was preserved in the name when it was translated into Arabic probably in ninth-century Baghdad. The Latin version translated in the twelfth century in turn preserved the Arabic article “al”.

Whatever the earlier texts might have been used for, the Latin version seeks to communicate and develop a close relationship with an angel. The Almandal itself, a magic tablet 4 inches square with holes in each corner, made from wax, and engraved with a quartile figure including angelic and divine names. The version we used required this square tablet to be supported by the rims of four candle stands. The candles were then lit and incense placed under the table. Earlier versions supported the table by putting tapering candles through the holes.

Again, the results were not only fun but also useful and practical. We had 3D printed the Almandal and the candle stands without thinking that the substance we used (PLA) melts at 180 C. The hot censor containing incense atop burning charcoal underneath it threatened to melt it. This led us to wonder if the older version in which the wax tablet was supported only by candles was simply too susceptible to melting or damage by dripping candles. The later version, which we used, protected the candles from the heat of the censor by having them on stands and the tablet from the candle drips by having a stand catch them.

More crucially, we got a strong sense of how evocative this little bit of skrying technology really was. The candles produced a strong updraft, drawing the smoke from the incense through the holes and around the sides of the table into the space between them and above the table where the angel was supposed to appear. This, together with flickering light, made for a pretty powerful effect. It was easy to see how one might see angels in such a device.

So what prompted all this activity?

These and other items built from ancient and medieval magic manuals form part of an exhibit assembled by David Porreca (University of Waterloo), Tracene Harvey (University of Saskatchewan), and me called “Materials and Imagination in Ancient and Modern Magic” It is currently running at the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Saskatchewan. Subsequent exhibitions will take place at the University of Waterloo and the International Medieval Congress at Western Michigan University (May 2017).


Frank Klaassen is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan and author of the Transformations of Magic (Penn State University Press) and Making Magic in Elizabethan England (forthcoming with Penn State University Press).

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine