The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Medical Museums and Anatomical Atlases

A composition of three fetal skeletons

Engraving by C. Huyberts from a specimen by Frederik Ruysch.

Medical museums and personal curiosity cabinets were often founded to collect and preserve wax models, skeletons and wet specimens. Two prominent collections were those at the University of Leiden, at the home of surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, and at the home of Frederik Ruysch. Ruysch united the anatomical atlas with anatomical models in his Thesaurus anatomicus primus, published in 1701. The atlas was a catalogue of his personal anatomy and curiosity museum, which he based on the museum at Leiden.

Ruysch was a professor of anatomy at the Amsterdam Surgeon's Guild and was an innovator in dissection technique. He invented new ways of preserving specimens, such as arterial embalming, in which veins were injected with wax and alcohol in order to maintain their color and shape. These techniques allowed for improved identification of blood vessels within the larger structure of a specimen.

Ruysch's atlas is made up of illustrations of the dioramas of his collection. Constructed with the help of his artist daughter Rachel, the dioramas are mostly infant and fetal skeletons paired with odd still-life objects, plants, and body parts. Many illustrations include memento mori themes and quotes on the brevity of life. The aesthetics and curiosity of the collection made it a major tourist attraction, but Ruysch also intended it to be a scientific tool for educating students in anatomy and biology.