Tag Archives: skin

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.

Ice (Fires Foe): Some lessons in love and burning

By Phoebe Dickerson

What should you do if you burn yourself? Ideally, you’d stand bent over a sink of cool or tepid water for half an hour. Instead, if you’re anything like me, you’re more likely to run around clutching some frozen peas to the afflicted area. Or maybe you’d try smearing on some antiseptic ointment. However, if instead you were to turn to the celebrated Dutch physician, Paul Barbette (d. 1666) for advice, you’d be recommended to take a quite different approach. In his Thesaurus Chirurgiae (first translated into English in 1675), he writes:

The chief care must be to draw out the fire, by which in a light burning you preserve from Blisters and Ulcers; in a great one, you free from all danger; therefore, what Medicine soever is at hand, is presently to be used; let the hurt Part be held to the fire, and fomented with Ink, Lye; or let there be applied Soot, or an Onion beaten with Salt.[1]

While the notion of applying Soot, Ink or Lye to a burn is positively eye-watering, it hardly stands out among the wealth of curious balms and plasters that fill the pages of any early modern recipe book: the concept, however, of holding a burn to a fire – of letting it get nice and toasty – is, even within this context, glaringly misguided.

Was Barbette’s a voice in the wilderness? Certainly, I have not come across this precise recommendation anywhere else: nonetheless, it is worth considering that the notion we readily accept today, of reducing the heat of the area by applying something cold, was considered – and frequently dismissed – by early modern thinkers as a ‘contrary’ remedy. Such treatments were widely thought to aggravate the constitution into dangerous imbalance. George Acton for example, in 1670, expounds against the ‘extinction of praeternatural heat by cooling Medicines, and refocillation of cold, by heating ones.’ [2] Arguing that heat and cold were symptoms – rather than causes – of ‘the enraged Vital Spirit’, Acton asks :

‘Does not Fire burn most vehemently, when constring’d by an extreme cold of the ambient? And hot water sooner extinguish Fire than cold, because sooner penetrating its Pores? I could multiply arguments against the Method of curing Diseases by contrary Remedies.’

Barbette’s suggested burn treatment adheres instead to the logic of sympathy, according to which the heat in the wound would be attracted to the original heat of the fire.

‘An Unknown Man with Background of Flames’ c. 1600 (V&A) attrib. Nicholas Hilliard (click on image to link to the image’s entry on the V&A’s website)

The notion that cold would only exacerbate a burn has implications outside the medical realm: indeed, it finds explicit poetic expression in ‘The Exclamation’ [3], a mid-century love-lyric by Hugh Crompton (fl. 1657). The speaker advises his reader thus:

‘Ice (fires foe) laid to the skin
Thats burnt, will cause the flesh to turn
Into a blister, and within
With greater vehemency to burn!’

His purpose with this medical tit-bit is, of course, romantic: with this poem – half plaint, half invocation – the speaker, burnt by love, asks that his beloved’s ‘icy heart’ might melt and ‘reflect’ the warmth of his own burning heart. He says,

‘[…] thy heart will me affect,
And with enlivening flames me cherish.’

Where her cold heart’s frigid enmity endangered his heart, her hoped-for warm heart – newly aflame – will offer sympathy. It does not dim or extinguish the lover’s passion: rather, the flames of her love are ‘enlivening’ where, alone in the cold, his own were destructive.

Burning hearts and freezing mistresses are common Petrarchan conceits, pervasive in the period’s literary and artistic (see above) effusions of amorous feeling. Crompton’s words may seem a cocktail of early modern romantic cliché and ill-founded medical beliefs. Nonetheless, there is something at once unusual and appealing in the fact that his allusion to burns so closely echos the language of contemporary physicians. In addition, it so happens many modern doctors would agree with his words: the NHS website advises us to ‘never use ice or iced water’. The Mayo-clinic advises that ice can ‘cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound’.

So, a caution, if you will: whether you are a lover – or simply someone with a nasty kitchen burn – think twice before you reach for the frozen peas. And whatever Barbette says, if you’re already burnt, perhaps you should stay back from the fire.

[1] Paul Barbette, Thesaurus chirurgiae : the chirurgical and anatomical works of Paul Barbette (London : Printed for Henry Rodes, 1686), p. 191

[2] George Acton, A letter in answer to certain quaeries and objections made by a learned Galenist against the theorie and practice of chymical physick… (London : Printed by William Godbid for Walter Kettleby), 1670, p.

[3] Hugh Crompton, Pierides, or, The muses mount by Hugh Crompton, Gent. (London : Printed by J.G. for Charles Web), 1658, p. 79.