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Petrus Camper

Born  1722
Died  1789

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Dutch physician and anatomist, born May 11, 1722, Leiden; died April 7, 1789, The Hague.

Biography of Petrus Camper

Petrus Camper was the son of Florentius Camper and Sara Geertruida Ketting. His parents had married in Batavia, Java (now Djakarta, Indonesia), where his father served as a reformed minister. In 1713 they returned to Leiden where his father lived as a gentleman of independent means. In his retirement, Florentius Camper often received men of science and fame, among them Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738). He took care that his gifted son was taught carpentry, as well as the arts of design and painting, at an early age.

A student at twelve
Young Camper went to grammar school in 1731. Outside school hours, he learned the arts of designing and painting from Karel de Moor (1656-1738) and his son, Carel Isaac de Moor (1691-1751). In 1734, when he was twelve, Camper was accepted at Leiden University, where he studied classics, natural sciences, and medicine for twelve years.

His physics teachers were Willem Jacob ‘sGravesande (1688-1742) and Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761), both among the leading continental proponents of Newtonian empiricism. In the medical faculty he was taught by Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), Herman Oosterdijk Schacht (1704-1792), and Hieronymus Davides Gaub (1705-1780). Camper practised midwifery under the guidance of Cornelis Trioen (1686-1746), the teacher of the city’s midwives.

On October 14, 1746, he was conferred Doctor Philosophiae (science) and Doctor of medicine with two theses, Dissertatio Optica de visu and Dissertatio Physiologica de Quibusdam oculi partibus, both published in Leiden in the same year.

Travelling doctor and painter
The young doctor then practised medicine in Leiden for a short time. However, after the death of his parents in 1748 he left Leiden for a long journey through England, France, Switzerland, and Germany. During the trip he met many foreign scientists, contacts which he later cultivated. In England he attended William Smellie’s (1697-1763) course in midwifery and was accepted as a member of the Painter’s Academy. Camper provided the illustrations for Smellie’s well-known book on midwifery. In June 1749 he left for Paris, where he attended the lessons of the famous surgeon Antoine Louis (1723-1792) and met the natural scientist Georges-Louis-Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-1788).

Professor at Franeker
In September 1749, while travelling from Paris to Geneva, the twenty-seven year old scientist was notified that he had been appointed to the chair of philosophy at Franeker University, in the province of Friesland. A few weeks later he was even appointed to the chairs of anatomy and surgery, an office illness prevented him from entering until April 28, 1750. The topic of his inaugural address – De mundo optimo – was living in the best possible world created by an omnipotent and benevolent God. He points to the fact of the enormous variety, both in living and non-living nature, which demonstrates the ordering power of the Supreme Being. Only as a professor in Franeker did Camper have to teach philosophy; later on, in Amsterdam and Groningen, he only held chairs of medicine.

Professor in Amsterdam
Four years later, in 1755, he was called to Amsterdam as professor of anatomy and surgery at the Athenaeum Illustre. His inaugural address – De anatomes in omnibus scientiis usu – concerned the use of anatomy in all sciences. In Amsterdam he performed many dissections for the surgeons’ guild and was portrayed with the governors of that guild by Tibout Regters (17180-1768). In 1758 he was appointed professor of medicine, an office he entered with the inaugural Oratio de certo in medicina, an oration on certainty in medicine.

As a medical practitioner Camper was consulted by many, and when necessary he helped the poor free of charge. He experimented with obstetric instruments, which he designed himself. He preferred practical skill above theory, and probably for that reason he withdrew voluntarily from his academic profession.

A gentleman in rural peace
Camper was a wealthy man, and in 1756 he had married a rich widow, Johanna Bourboom (1722–1776). She had inherited from her first husband an estate near Franeker, called Klein Lankum. At the urging of his wife, he abandoned his professorship in Amsterdam in 1761 in order to settle at her country house in Klein Lankum. Here Camper settled and could live independently.

At Klein Lankum he conducted research in comparative anatomy and completed his two-volume Demonstrationum anatomico-pathologicarum, as well as minor papers. The first part of this work had been published in 1760, and had been called «l’oeuvre le plus remarquable d’anatomie et de chirurgie de ce siècle» by Antoine Louis.

Professor in Groningen
A restless man, Camper soon sought new challenges. In 1763, after only two years or rural peace and quiet, he was appointed Professor Medicinae Theoreticae, Anatomiae, Chirurgiae et Botanicae at the University of Groningen. He entered this office with the inaugural address Oratio de analogia inter animalia et stirpes, in which he discussed the analogy between animals and plants. Two days later he commenced his lecturing with Oratio de claudicatione.

For some ten years Camper devoted himself to extensive teaching duties, he also gave a course in forensic medicine, and his medical consultations. In the academic year 1765-1766 he acted as vice-chancellor of the university. When he stepped down as Rector Magnificus in 1766 he gave an address entitled De pulchro physico.

A retired gentleman
In 1773 Camper retired from his office and returned to his country estate, where he in particular devoted himself to his favourite study, that of comparative anatomy. The fact that he did not keep these studies entirely to himself is demonstrated by his ten prize-winning papers on various themes. Félix Vicq D’Azyr (1748-1794) wrote him to confirm that it was right of Camper no longer to participate in prize competitions, as he entered with too strong weapens, thus excluding his competitors. From 1775 Camper also concerned himself with politics.

The death of his wife following an operation for breast cancer in 1776 left him depressed. He attempted to improve his frame of mind by travelling in Germany and Belgium.

As a landowner Camper was concerned about the flooding of a great part of Friesland in 1776. He wrote a booklet critical of the building of dikes that provoked a polemical answer. Gradually he became more involved in public affairs; he became buromaster of Workum and member of the States of Friesland which sent him as a representative to the States-General in the Hague. There, as a faithful supporter of the house of Orange, he was nominated as a member of the State Council. He retained the title of professor honorarius. However, the man who had received so many honours in the scientific world and was not at all devoid of vanity – as well as having a rather quick temper – now had to suffer vehement political attacks that soured his last years. He died in 1789 at The Hague and was buried in the Pieterskerk, Leiden.

The great scientist
Camper's name was one of the most distinguished in eighteenth-century science and he was a member of practically every learned society of Europe. When Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, during his natural historical studies believed to have discovered the os inter maxillare in man, produced a hand-written monograph with magnificent illustrations – which he first submitted to Camper, and then to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840).

Already while still a student Camper made an important discovery of microscopic anatomy, as he in one of his dissertations established that the lens of the eye is made up of fibres – as had already been assumed by the great natural scientist and miscroscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). However, Camper's fame rests chiefly upon his discovery of the air spaces in the bones of birds, as well as his dissections of the elephant, the rhinoceros, and the orang-utan. He also published numerous works on the hearing organ of fish and on the croaking of frogs.

It was his mastery of the drawing pen that occasioned his discovery of the angulus facialis, which bear his name and must be considered the first attempt of measuring the human skull. Even in modern times this angle is used as a guideline by artists.

For some thirty years Camper, practised midwifery and performed several experimental symphysiotomies on pigs. Finally he was so convinced of the usefulness and practicability of the operation, that he persuaded the obstetrician Johannes Christianus Damen (1755-1804) in Den Haag to perform it on a pregnant women with a constricted pelvis. The operation was a success, and was successfully repeated the following year, 1783. Camper thus challenges Jean-René Sigault (born 1740) on the priority of this operation.

Camper was the first to give a correct construction for vectis – a curved lever for making traction on presenting part of foetus – and changed this instrument to such a degree that it carries his name. The obstetrical lever, a precursor to the obstetrical forceps, was first introduced by Hendrik van Roonhuyze (1625-1672).

In Groningen in 1764, Camper was the first to establish a Collegium casuale chirurgicum - a surgical policlinic, which furnished him with a rich material for teaching, giving his students ample opportunity for practical exercises.

Camper also concerned himself with veterinary medicine. The cattle epidemics in 1768 occasioned him to lecture on this topic in Groningen, and he was a strong advocate of the inoculation of cattle. As medicus forensis Camper became known through three valuable treatises on infanticide, and his lectures on Medicina legalis always had a large attendance.

During his lifetime Camper became famous for his skills as an anatomist. He was a keen observer, both as a medical practitioner and as a zoologist. He collected a huge range of fossils and contributed to the identification of vertebrate fossils. He also noted the morphological dissimilarity between some fossil animals and living animals. Like many contemporary naturalists, he had theological objections to the explanation that fossils represent extinct animals. Camper was convinced that the fossils originated from still unknown animals, which were being discovered in hitherto hardly explored regions.

Camper also devoted his energies to the teaching of drawing. In Groningen he tried to found a drawing-school, but he failed to get financial support from the citizens. He illustrated all of his works. In his rectoral address Oratio de pulchro (1766), he praised the beauty of the variety in creation.

His work set the direction for much of the most fundamental research which was to take place in the following century.

Camper had three sons: Petrus Everardus (1757-1803), Jacobus (1758-1813) and Adriaan Gilles (1759-1820).

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.


  • Johannes Christianus Damen:
    Bericht von einer Schambeintrennung und deren glücklichen Erfolg.
    Translated from German by F. W. Jung. Frankfurt am Main and Leipzig, 1785. Works by Petrus Camper:
  • Dissertatio optica de visu. Leiden, 1746. Dissertation for Dr. philosophiae.
  • Dissertatio physiologica de quibusdam oculi partibus.
    Doctoral dissertation in medicine. Lugduni Batavorum (Leiden), 1746.
  • Demonstrationum anatomico-pathologicarum libri duo. Amsterdam, 1760-1762.
  • Redevoering over den oorsprong en de kleur der zwarten.
    [Lecture on the Origin and Color of Blacks]
    1764. Published in De Rhapsodist, 1772, 2: 373-394.
    In this address, Camper combated the myths of his days concerning the supposed close relationship of apes to the black race.
  • Oratio de pulchro. Rectoral address, 1766.
  • De Oculorum Fabrica et Morbis. Written in 1766 but never published in Camper's lifetime. It was first published in 1913 as part of the Opuscula selecta Neerlandicorum de arte medica (fasc. II).
  • De admirabili analogia inter animalia et stirpes.
  • Icones herniarium.
    Editae a S. T. Soemmerring. Francofurti ad Moenum, Varrentrapp & Wenner, 1801.
    Completed 1779, published 1801 by Samuel Thomas Soemmerring in Frankfurt.
  • Account of the Organs of Speech of the Orang Outang.
    Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1779, 69: 139-159.
  • Dissertation sur la meilleure forme des souliers. 1781.
    Classic discussion on childhood shoe-induced deformities. Dutch edition, 1781. English translation in Dowie, The foot and its covering, London, 1861.
    German: Über die beste Form der Schuhe.
  • Natuurkundige verhandelingen over den orang-outang; en eenige andere aap-soorten Over den Rhinocerus met den dubbelen horen; en over het rendier.
    [Essay on the Natural History of the Orang-utan and Other Monkey Species. On the Double-horned Rhinocerous; and on the Reindeer].
    Amsterdam: Meyer en Warnars, 1782.
  • Observationes circa mutationes quas subeunt calculi in vesica.
    Pestini, sumpt. J. M. Weingand, 1784.
  • Sämmtliche kleine Schriften, die Arzney-, Wundarzneykunst und Naturgeschichte betreffend.
    Translated and with supplement by J. F. M. Herbell.
    3 volumes, Leipzig, 1784-1788. English translation, 1794.
  • Dissertatio de fractura patellae et olecrani. Hagae Comitum, I. van Cleef, 1789.
  • Verhandeling over het naturrlijk verschil der wezenstrekken in menschen van onderscheiden landaart en ouderdom; over het schoon in antyke beelden en gesneedene steenen.
    Utrecht 1791.
    This work on cephalometry, in which Camper first described the facial angle (or Camper's line), probably has done more to perpetuate Campers name than his work as an anatomist and artist. German translation, 1792.
  • Dissertation sur les Variétés Naturelles qui caractérisent la Physionomie des hommes des divers climats et des différens âges. Suivie de Réflexions sur la Beauté ; particulièrement sur celle de la tête... et d'une Dissertation sur la meilleure Forme des souliers.
  • Ueber den natürlichen Unterschied der Gesichtszüge in Menschen verschiedener Gegenden und verschiedenen Alters.
    Berlin, Vossische Buchhandlung, 1792
    First published in Dutch in 1791. This work on physiognomy includes Camper's description of his craniometrical methods.
  • Redevoeeringen over die wijze om de verscheidene hartsogten op onze wezens te verbeelden . . . Utrecht, bij Wild en Altheer, 1792.
    Lectures on methods of preserving the passions of the human face, and on other aspects of medicine and arts. German translation, Berlin, 1793. Biographical etc.
  • A. G. Camper:
    Levensschets van P. Camper. Leeuwarden, 1791.
  • The Works of the Late Professor Camper, on the Connexion between the Science of Anatomy and the Arts of Drawing, Painting, Statuary.
    T. Cogan, translator, London, 1794.
  • Biographical sketch in: Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1803, 3: 257-262.
  • C. J. Doets:
    De heelkunde van Petrus Camper 1722-1789. Thesis, Leiden, 1848.
  • C. E. Daniëls:
    Het leven en de verdiensten van Petrus Camper. Utrecht, 1880.
  • Gerrit Arie Lindeboom (1905-1986):
    Camper, Peter (Pertrus).
    In: Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief: Dictionary of Scientific Biographies. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1974, volume 3: 37-38.
  • R.P.W. Visser:
    The Zoological Work of Petrus Camper 1722–89.
    Amsterdam, 1985); with a bibliography.
  • W.R.H. Koops and J. Schuller tot Peursum-Meijer, editors:
    Petrus Camper (1722–89), onderzoeker van nature. Groningen, 1989.
  • Miriam Claude Meijer:
    Race and Aesthetics in the Anthropology of Petrus Camper (1722–89).
    Amsterdam and Atlanta, Georgia, 1999; with a bibliography.
  • La Correspondance, 1785-1787, de Petrus Camper (1722-1789) et son fils Adriaan-Gilles Camper (1759-1820).
    Amsterdam and Utrecht, APA-Holland University Press, 2002.

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