Jacob Benignus Winsløw

Born 1669
Died 1760

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Danish-born French anatomist, born April 17, 1669, Odense, on the island of Fyn, Denmark; died April 3, 1760, Paris.

Biography of Jacob Benignus Winsløw

Jacob Benignus Winsløw was baptised as Jacob Christian on April 23, 1669. He was the eldest of thirteen children of Peder Jakopsen Winsløw, dean of the Protestant Church of Our Lady – Vor Frues Kirke – in Odense, and Marthe Nielsdatter Brun, whose father had held the same post. The name Wonsløw is from the city of Vinslöv in Skåne, where his father was born. Skåne belonged to Denmark until 1658.

Winsløw received his early education from his father, who was learned in borth linguistics and archeology. In 1867 he became a student at the Odense gymnasium where he learned Latin, Greek and Danish. Initially he intended to follow the family tradition by studying for the clergy – like his father and grandfather – and in 1687 began the study of theology at the University of Copenhagen. Although he delivered several sermons, Winsløw was soon attracted to the natural sciences, inspired by Oliger Jacobaeus (1650-1701) and Caspar Bartholin the younger (1655-1738). His studies were supported by privy counsellor Moth and the astronomer and physicist Ole Rømer (1644-1710), famous for first measuring the speed of light.

From 1691 to 1696 Winsløw attended Ole (Oluf) Borch’s (1626-1690) College and worked under the county barber-surgeon Johannes de Buchwald (1658-1738). He obtained the baccalaureat in 1693.Although Buchwald was the best surgeon in Copenhagen, Winsløw concentrated on anatomy, since the sight of blood alarmed him. He soon became Thomas Bartholin’s (1616-1680) 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 (1638-1686), some twenty years before.

In 1697 Winsløw was awarded a royal scholarship and accompanied Johannes de Buchwald to Leyden in the Netherlands. From March 15, 1697 he 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 Johannes Jacobus Rau (1668-1719), Pieter Verduyn (1660-1748), and Hendrik van Deventer (1651-1724) – 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 Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648-1730). A spiritual crisis intervened, however, inspired by discussions with his friend Ole (Mathiassen) Worm, grandson of the famous Ole Worm (1588-1654), and by the treatises of Jacques-Bénigne Bousset (1627-1704), Bishop of Meaux. After a seies of conversations with the latter, Winsløw in 1699 converted to Roman Catholicism, taking his baptismal name Bénigne from Bousset. Due to his conversion he fell out of favour with the king of Denmark, his scholarship was terminated and he was disowned by his Lutherian family. He never returned to Denmark.

With the help of Bousset and other Catholic patrons Winsløw was soon able to resume his work with Duverney. On October 4, 1704, he 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. In 1705 he was promoted to doctor of medicine in Paris – free of charge. In 1707 he was elected member of the Academy of Sciences, and that year was appointed professor of anatomy, a tenure he held for many years.

Winsløw maintained a busy medical practice and was appointed physician at the Hôpital Général and at Bicêtre in 1709. In 1721 he assumed Duverney’s duties at the Jardin de Roi and in 1728 he was made docteur-régent of the Paris Faculty of Medicine. In 1743 he became professor anatomicus, full professor of anatomy at the Jardin du Roi. He held the post until 1758, when he was obliged to retire because of extreme deafness.. On February 18, 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 sucessor of Jean Riolan (1580-1656), Bartholin, and Stensen, he was in fact regarded as the greatest European anatomist of his day and attracted a number of able students, including Victor Abrecht von Haller (1798-1777).

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 l’Académie royale 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 pritoneum that is now named for him.

In 1732 Winsløw made the first description of a Greenland cranium, one of the first ever craniological descriptions. In it he described the features characteristic of eskimo skeletons in way that is still the basis for such investigations. That same year he coined the term nervus sympathicus.

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 1733 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.

Winslow suggested that the means for determining death were unreliable and, hence, there was a widespread risk of being buried alive. Winslow went on to write a detailed compendium of alleged cases of premature burial, mixing fact with folklore and creating a kind of Ur-text for what subsequently became both a widespread popular fear in Western Europe and an at-times respected (if sometimes eccentric) intellectual and social movement for measures to eliminate the risk of premature burial.

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). On July 11, 1711, Winsløw married Maria Catharina Gilles. They had two children, the son Louis Pierre, who died early, and the daughter Marie Angélique, who married a Paris physician named de la Sourdière. Jacob Benignus Winsløw is burried on the church St. Benoit in Paris.

    "it is evident from Experience, that many apparently dead, have afterwards proved themselves alive by rising from their shrouds, their coffins, and even from their graves."

    "Death is certain, since it is inevitable, but also uncertain, since its diagnosis is sometimes fallible" Morte incertae signa, 1740

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