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Thomas Bartholin, The Anatomy House in Copenhagen, edited by Niels W. Bruun.

Thomas Bartholin, The Anatomy House in Copenhagen, edited by Niels W. Bruun. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2015, 222pp. + 44 illustrations. $50. Review by Celeste Chamberland, Roosevelt University.

As the pedagogical benefits of dissection gained increasing recognition in the century after Andreas Vesalius situated anatomy squarely at the center of medical education at the University of Padua in 1543, universities across Europe subsequently incorporated anatomical research and teaching into the core of their medical curricula. Among the institutions of higher learning situated at the forefront of anatomical science in the seventeenth century was the University of Copenhagen, which commissioned the construction of its first theater of dissection in 1644. This pivotal event not only enhanced the training of Copenhagen's medical students, but also fostered a thriving tradition of research that facilitated the discovery of new physiological systems and anatomical phenomena. Perhaps the most celebrated lecturer associated with the university's heyday of anatomical research, the Danish physician and theologian, Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), is primarily renowned for his discovery of the lymphatic system and for his detailed description of the thoracic duct. A prolific author, Bartholin published widely on topics ranging from theology to refrigeration anesthesia. Among his most influential publications, Bartholin's 1662 Latin treatise, Domus anatomica hafniensis, provides a thorough account of the layout, functions, and holdings of the Copenhagen anatomy house. Although Bartholin's treatise was initially translated into Danish, it was not available in English until Niels Brunn and Peter Fischer, in an effort to make the text accessible to modern readers outside of Scandinavia, released the first English version of the text, The Anatomy House in Copenhagen in 2015. In addition to its highly engaging prose, this lush volume includes extensive commentary and a rich assortment of images that will be of a great interest to medical historians and scholars of early modern European history alike.

Inasmuch as this fine translation, which Bruun describes as a "committed historical monograph" (43), provides access to a noteworthy early modern medical treatise heretofore largely overlooked outside of Denmark, it also includes illuminating commentaries that place Bartholin and Copenhagen within a larger political and intellectual context. Morten Fink-Jensen's introductory chapter, "Thomas Bartholin and the Anatomy House at the University of Copenhagen," for example, explains the University of Copenhagen's rise to prominence as a center of medical education and Bartholin's impact as dean of the medical faculty and scientific author. After publishing numerous treatises on specific anatomical discoveries, Bartholin turned his attention to documenting and celebrating the unique setting of Copenhagen's anatomy house as a glorification of divine creation and scientific innovation. As Fink-Jensen asserts, however, Bartholin's treatise also served a political end by linking the health of the Danish people to the success of the state under the leadership of Frederik III, who ascended to the Danish throne in 1648 and endorsed Bartholin's work. Beyond the practical and pedagogical aims of his treatise, however, Bartholin also seized the opportunity for self-aggrandizement afforded by print. By comparing his discovery of lymph with Tycho Brahe's contributions to astronomy, Bartholin cemented his heralded place within the revered annals of Danish scientific achievement.

Following Fink-Jensen's thorough contextualization of Bartholin's treatise and a detailed account of the text that provides extensive technical information about the format, typography, and history of the text's origin, the English translation of The Anatomy House in Copenhagen opens with Bartholin's brief description of the design and layout of the anatomy theater. This delineation offers a unique glimpse at the logistics of dissection, including details such as the location of the stove "used to prevent the dissectors hands being pinched by the intense winter cold" and the position of a copper cauldron used to strip the flesh from the bones of the cadaver after the dissection (55). In addition to Bartholin's overview of the configuration of the anatomy theater, The Anatomy House at Copenhagen also includes a letter written by Simon Paulii, Bartholin's predecessor at the University of Copenhagen, that outlines the procedure for admitting spectators to dissections. According to Paulii, tokens could be purchased at a cost of six Danish marks in advance of the scheduled dissection in order to prevent spectators from causing "inconvenience when they [came] to be admitted to the theatre" (81). By providing information about even the most minute details, such as the appearance of the tokens used to gain admission to dissections, Bartholin leads readers on a visual tour of the anatomy house that not only places Copenhagen within a larger European context of anatomical education, but also contributes to our understanding of the ways in which dissection intersected with popular culture and the popularity of dissections in the seventeenth century.

Although Bartholin's detailed description of the structure and function of the anatomy house provides valuable insight into the early modern practice of medical dissection, perhaps the most intriguing section of his treatise is the itemized list of specimens housed at the Fuiren Museum, a hall adjacent to the anatomy hall, as well as the extensive catalog of Bartholin's personal collection of natural objects. Among the more conspicuous objects he itemizes are a "giant's tooth," "a magical pellet ... which was vomited up by a noblewoman," and "the hand and rib of a mermaid" (111). The inventory also includes a variety of more mundane objects, such as a tapeworm, a crocodile, and human gallstones. Bartholin's extensive list of oddities sheds light on the nature of his scientific curiosities and places him within a larger pan-European context of burgeoning natural history in which cabinets of curiosity and collections of exotic biological specimens served as precursors to modern museums. Bruun's inclusion of illustrations depicting specimens and oddities drawn from other seventeenth-century texts in the glossary following Bartholin's text, moreover, offers a striking visual complement to Bartholin's somewhat enigmatic descriptions.

In addition to the intricate illustrations of natural objects included in the book's glossary, Bruun incorporates an array of lush images throughout the text that provide compelling visual evidence for the cultural significance of the anatomy house and Bartholin's work therein. Portraits of Bartholin and his contemporaries complement Fink-Jensen's biographical overview, while renderings of anatomy theaters and the grounds of the University of Copenhagen effectively round out Bartholin's narrative tour of the anatomy house and the logistics of dissection. Among the most striking images Bruun includes in this edition is the title plate to Bartholin's Anatomia reformata, which depicts the flayed skin of an anatomical cadaver. Although illustrations of flayed bodies in anatomical texts were not uncommon in the seventeenth century, this particular rendering provides an especially graphic reference to the sheer violence associated with the act of dissecting cadavers. Despite the gruesome nature of early modern anatomical dissection, however, the extensive commentary accompanying the images in this volume effectively places them within a larger intellectual and cultural framework in which dissection was heralded as a tribute to divine creation and a symbol of scientific innovation.

An indispensable resource for medical historians, The Anatomy House in Copenhagen will undoubtedly be of great interest to scholars interested in the culture of dissection in seventeenth-century Europe. However, due to Bruun's thorough and engaging contextualization of Thomas Bartholin and his anatomical research, this volume will likely have much broader appeal by contributing an important new dimension to existing scholarship in cultural history and the foundations of natural history in early modern Europe. Bruun's exhaustive contextualization of Bartholin's text and the conditions of its publication are also germane to the larger topic of early modern print culture and offer a particularly rich and detailed source of information about the role of medical publishing in the early modern book trade.
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Author:Chamberland, Celeste
Publication:Seventeenth-Century News
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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