Frederik Ruysch

Born 1638
Died 1731

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Dutch anatomist and botanist, born March 23, 1638, Den Haag, Netherlands; died February 22, 1731; Amsterdam.

Biography of Frederik Ruysch

Frederik Ruysch was the son of Hendrik Ruysch, a secretary in the service of the state, and Anna van Berchem. Because of the early death of his father he became an apprentice in an apothecary’s shop while still a boy. A man of initiative, he began preparing drugs and opened a shop in Den Haag in 1661, not yet admitted to the apothecaries’ guild. He was forced to close the shop, but reopened it after he had been admitted to the guild as a confrater on June 17, 1661. In the same year he married Maria Post, daughter of Pieter Post, a well-known architect of Frederik Henry, prince of Orange. One of his twelve children was Rachel, who became a well-known flower-painter and helped her father make anatomical preparations in his old age. His son Hendrik eventually succeeded his father.

He studied medicine at the University of Leiden, where his teachers included Johannes van Horne (1621-1670), Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672), and Florentius Schuyl (1619-1669). He obtained his medical doctorate on July 28, 1664. Ruysch's main interest was anatomy, for which he had had a passion since his youth, when he would ask grave diggers to open graves so that he could make anatomical investigations.

On December 29, 1666, Ruysch was named praelector of anatomy for the surgeon’s guild – Chirurgynsgild - in Amsterdam, a post he held until his death in 1731. In 1679 Ruysch was appointed Doctor van t’geregte – Medicus forensis - doctor of the court of justice, and on March 24, 1685, he was appointed professor of botany at the Athenaeum Illustre and thus became supervisor of the botanical garden.

The eight wonder of the world
Embalming by arterial injection as a mortuary practice is considered to have begun in England in the 18th century. The technique had actually been developed in the first half of the 17th century by the noted English physiologist William Harvey in experiments leading to his discovery of the circulation of blood, during which he injected coloured solutions into the arteries of cadavers. Such techniques were further perfected by Jan Swammerdam and Regnier de Graaf. Ruysch, however, who first studied the art of making preparations in the anatomical laboratory of Johannes van Horne, remains the unsurpassed master of anatomical preparations.

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 displayed these preparations – against an entrance fee - in several small rented houses in Amsterdam, and this “cabinet” became a major attraction for foreign visitors, and was sometimes referred to as "The Eight Wonder of the World". One entry on page 30 in the visitor's protocol is Peter, Tsar of Russia. In 1717 Peter the Great bought the collection for 30.000 guilders. Several of the items are still held by the Museum of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. The seventy-nine year old Ruysch immediately began to set up a new collection.

Ruysch himself never disclosed the composition of the fluids he used, but in 1743 Johann Christoph 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.

In 1712 Ruysch retired in favour of his son Hendrik.

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