Visit the US Library of Medicine's Dream Anatomy website and it is clear that anatomy has not always been an exact science. Dream Anatomy points to the invention of the printing press in 15th century as the inspiration for what it calls the "new spectacular visions of the body" that were preserved in print and can be viewed here. Among the works featured on the website are those of 16th century Dutch botanist and anatomist extraordinaire Frederik Ruysch. Although none of the original dioramas that Ruysch constructed have survived, they were faithfully reproduced by the artist Cornelius Huyberts.
In 1668, Ruysch was appointed chief instructor to Amsterdam's midwives who were all required to be examined by him before they were allowed to practice. His job allowed him access to a rare resource vital to his studies – the bodies of stillborn and dead babies. To perform dissections on these subjects required no permission. Ruysch invented a special embalming fluid made from a mixture of clotted pig's blood, paint pigment, Prussian blue, and mercury oxide. With the help of his artist daughter Rachel, Ruysch used preserved specimens from the dissections he had performed to construct a fantastic collection.
Body parts served as Ruysch's sculptural medium. In Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors Stephen Jay Gould wrote of his work: "Ruysch made about a dozen tableaux, constructed of human fetal skeletons with backgrounds of other body parts, on allegorical themes of death and the transiency of life ... Ruysch built the 'geological' landscapes of these tableaux from gallstones and kidneystones, and 'botanical' backgrounds from injected and hardened major veins and arteries for "trees," and more ramified tissue of lungs and smaller vessels for 'bushes' and 'grass.' The fetal skeletons, several per tableau, were ornamented with symbols of death and short life – hands may hold mayflies (which live but a day in their adult state); skulls bemoan their fate by weeping into 'handkerchiefs' made of elegantly injected mesentery or brain meninges; 'snakes' and 'worms,' symbols of corruption made of intestine, wind around pelvis and rib cage. Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions. One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, 'Why should I long for the things of this world?' Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, 'Ah fate, ah bitter fate'."
Illustration: Alle de ontleed- genees- en heelkindige werken ... van Fredrik Ruysch.
Amsterdam, 1744. Etching with engraving. National Library of Medicine.