Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Collecting Pathological Anatomy

Researcher: Hieke Huistra MSc. This PhD-project is directed at the historical and educational import of the Leiden University nineteenth-century pathological collections.

Robert Zwijnenberg


Hieke Huistra MSc is working on this project, which is directed at the historical and educational import of the Leiden University nineteenth-century pathological collections. The project deals with developments characteristic of nineteenth-century anatomy. It is concerned with how technological and medical developments influenced the way specimens were no longer exhibited in their ideal form; how ideas in anatomy determined the formation of pathological anatomy as an academic discipline; how pathological collections related to the perception of the body and its diseases; how the anatomical museum was shut off from the public view; and how educational values determined the exhibition of particular specimens. 

Project description

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as a result of newly formed relations between medical professionals and health institutions as well as the French medico-surgical analysis of tissue pathology (of for instance Xavier Bichat and René Laënnec), the focus of anatomical collections began to change from the preparation and exhibition of perfect bodies into the compilation of pathological conditions and malformations. At the same time artists became less involved in the making of anatomical artefacts and illustrations and anatomical cabinets were no longer open to the public gaze. Anatomy (or rather, pathological anatomy) in Leiden seemed to disappear into strictly medical surroundings. Yet, the construction of pathological anatomy and pathological exhibits was far from purely medical. Among cultural reasons for the interest in the pathological body were, for instance, new pedagogical ideals in medicine, such as the idea of ‘observation, experiment and classifying’ in the spirit of nineteenth-century materialist philosophy, a decline of religion-based repugnance against dissection and an intellectualised notion of letting one’s corpse be dissected for medical science and therefore for the good of society. 

So far a comprehensive cultural study of the history of nineteenth-century pathological anatomy in the Netherlands has never been attempted. Most probably this has to do with its disappearance from the public view. As opposed to, for instance, nineteenth-century pathological collections in Vienna (Narrenturm) and Berlin (Virchov’s museum), that are still very much part of both ‘public engagement’ and tourist offer, the Leiden collections were stylised exclusively medical. During the twentieth century the collections were no longer deemed important in medical teaching and were largely taken out of the medical curriculum. As a result the nineteenth-century anatomical collections have never been studied before (at least not from a ‘humanities’ point of view). An analysis of the Leiden collections –  still very much intact as collections – will importantly contribute to the history of pathology in the Netherlands. 

The research will take as its starting point the collections of G.C.B. Suringar (1802-1874). This collection contains many exhibits, is well catalogued and represented in drawings and educational treatises. The collection Suringar is particularly interesting because Suringar donated the collections to the university in a transitional period at the Leiden medical faculty. This means that Suringar experienced the transformation of the traditional Boerhaavian medicine into a medicine which was far more concerned with the practical knowledge of pathology and healing than the theoretical knowledge of old anatomy and physiology. At the end of his life Suringar also wrote extensively on the history of the Leiden medical faculty. In order to place the Suringar collections in a broader context, the researcher will also look at how the anatomical pathological collections were used and enlarged by other nineteenth-century anatomists such as H.J. Halbertsma, J.A. Boogaard and T. Zaaijer. 

Expected results

The nineteenth-century development of pathological dissection and the subsequent change of  practice of anatomical pathology that followed it dramatically changed the medical world-view. Therefore, studying the history of pathology in Leiden will be an important contribution to the history of medicine in the Netherlands.

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