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Museum Boerhaave

On the History of Science and Medicine

On 10 July 1908, physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes managed to liquefy helium for the first time, by lowering its temperature to –269 °C, just four degrees over zero kelvin, and then dropped it even further, to about 1½ K, turning his cryogenic laboratory in Leiden into ‘the coldest spot on earth’. Twenty years later, most of his scientific instruments had become obsolete, and subsequently, together with other stuff from the Leiden Physics Cabinet, formed the basis for the collection of Museum Boerhaave, the museum of the history of natural sciences that opened in 1931. The collection, comprising all things physical & medical, has a national scope & a local focus, and is one of the best of its kind world-wide. And the water playground in the courtyard is pretty cool, too.

Museum Boerhaave
Museum Boerhaave’s anatomical theatre

The museum is organized around two historical themes, the Dutch Golden Age & the Age of Enlightenment, and two subject themes concerning medicine & physics. A final section deals with today’s big questions, such as ‘what is our place in the universe?’ and ‘can we create life?’. Collection highlights include the famous anatomy book De humani corporis fabrica (1555) by Renaissance physician Andreas Vesalius, the world’s oldest heliocentric orrery (c. 1670), by Steven Tracy, early microscopes by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and pendulum clocks as invented by the great mathematician, astronomer & physicist Christiaan Huygens, anatomical models of men & fish made of papier mâché by Louis Auzoux, and of course Kamerlingh Onnes’ helium liquefier, and the first artificial kidney, invented in 1946 by lifesaver Willem Kolff.

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Today, the world’s coldest spot lies in Espoo, Finland, where in the autumn of 1999 a group of researchers at the Helsinki University of Technology managed to cool 2 g rhodium to 100 pK, one ten-billionth of a degree above absolute zero.


Named after Herman Boerhaave, a professor of medicine noted for his bedside teaching, the museum is housed in the very building where Boerhaave gave his lectures. His reputation as one of the greatest physicians of the 18th century lay partly in his attempts to collect, arrange & systematize the mass of medical information that had accumulated up to that time. Boerhaave’s principal works are three textbooks that were widely used during & after his lifetime: Institutiones medicæ (1708), Aphorismi de cognoscendis et curandis morbis (1709), and Elementa chemiæ (1732).


Museum Boerhaave’s anatomical theatre, now in use for showing the museum’s supercool introductory movie, is a reconstruction of Leiden’s theatrum anatomicum, which was originally built in 1594, and demolished in 1821. There are three authentic anatomical theatres left across Europe, in Padua (1595), Bologna (c. 1638), and Uppsala (1663). For more information about the one in Padua, the theatrum anatomicum at Palazzo Bo, read Cynthia Klestinec’s book Theaters of Anatomy, which is available for free from Johns Hopkins’ Project Muse website.


Regarded as the first anatomical standard work for modern medicine, Andreas Vesalius’ book De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (‘On the fabric of the human body in seven books’) first appeared in 1543. Based on observations of dissections Vesalius made himself, it was a more extensive & accurate description of the human body than any put forward by his predecessors, especially those based on the inferences of Claudius Galenus, a widely respected 2nd-century physician who never in his life had performed, or witnessed, a dissection of a human body and whose books on anatomy were still considered authoritative in medical education in Vesalius’ time. The Fabrica gave anatomy a new language, and, in the elegance of its printing & organization, a perfection hitherto unknown.


To educated people today, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is a modern conception, almost non-existent before the 17th century. Aristotle, for example, maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to check this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.


In the 17th century, roughly a century after the publication of Andreas Vesalius’ famous Fabrica (1543), the study of medicine, and in turn anatomy, were growing in popularity, which allowed for the development of a multitude of anatomical atlases. One of these is Anatomia humani corporis (1685), written by Boerhaave’s predecessor Govert Bidloo and illustrated by Gerard de Lairesse; the Boerhaave Museum holds a copy of the Dutch translation, Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams (1690). The huge difference between Vesalius’ Fabrica & its lookalikes and Bidloo’s Anatomia is the illustrations; in the former they are very neat & clean, and in the latter they distinctly look like dissected bodies, which makes leafing through Bidloo’s book a brutal experience.


If you believe that the engravings in The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1698) by William Cowper look similar to those in Bidloo’s Anatomia, you are right. Originally intended as a translation, its publisher ordered 300 printed copies of the illustrations from Bidloo’s publisher and for the text hired Cowper, who interpreted the concept of translation rather widely and basically came up with a new book. It was then published under Cowper’s name, with no mention of Bidloo or De Lairesse, and the original Dutch frontispiece was altered to display the English title, printed on a free-form piece of paper covering the Dutch title. Bidloo was enraged, and wrote a vitriolic pamphlet accusing Cowper of plagiarism.


Christiaan Huygens (1629–95) not only invented the pendulum clock, he was also the first person to describe the rings of Saturn as a disk surrounding the planet, and he is remembered for his wave theory of light.


Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), celebrated today as the father of microbiology, was the first to observe animalcules (‘seer kleine diertgens’), i.e. bacteria, and spermatozoa. To this purpose he made his own single-lens microscopes, some of them with an astonishing magnification factor of around 275, unrivalled in optical performance until the 1830s.


A highlight of the ‘Big Questions’ section is the telegram sent by Hendrik Lorentz to Albert Einstein on 22 September 1919, saying ‘Eddington fand Sternverschiebung am Sonnenrand vorläufige Größe zwischen neun zehntel Sekunde und doppeltem’. This was good news for Einstein, because it verified his general theory of relativity. ‘Efforts made to put in words intelligible to the nonscientific public the Einstein theory of light proved by the eclipse expedition so far have not been very successful’, reported the NYT on 10 November 1919, but its six-tiered headline included everything that mattered: Einstein Theory Triumphs — Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to be, But Nobody Need Worry. The fountain pen on display next to Lorentz’s telegram is the pen that Einstein used to write his theory.

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