The monstrosities of Ruysch

Jozien J. Driessen van het Reve, Historian, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Ruysch generally prepared normal, healthy anatomical objects, not abnormal ones. Yet, he possessed some specimens that had such an abnormal anatomy, so-called monstrosities. He placed his monstrosities on the second row of his cabinets: ‘So that not everyone needs to see them’. A malformed small child was placed behind a bottle containing a child’s small intestine (‘Which is very nice to observe, because it is possible to see its structure, resembling a fine web, so very well’). Ruysch did not want the monstrous child ‘even though the specimen has quite a vivid color’ to frighten his public, because ‘the hand is twisted and only has three fingers, and the right leg has only three toes, one leg is missing and the belly displays a fleshy growth’ Thesaurus VIII, Specimen 46.

Ruysch was not in for a freak show In the Sixth Thesaurus VI, Specimen 52, Ruysch describes a small creature, the size of a large finger, with a split palate and a harelip. He only showed such monstrosities on special request. Despite the malformations, he considered his own specimens ‘quite a special pleasure for the eye’ and absolutely different from such monstrosities displayed in other ‘Anatomical Theaters’. He judged colleagues exhibiting such monstrosities harshly: ‘It is better to bury such specimens than to exhibit them’. Ruysch objected to upset his public by showing them monstrosities.

A punishment of God? In Ruysch’s age many learned doctors still believed in the old, 16th century, explanations as the cause of monstrous deviations. When a pregnant woman saw anything ugly or scary, the child in her womb might change into a monstrosity. Even in 1680 Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715), member of the French Academy of Sciences, thought that such ‘imaginations’ could cause monstrosities because the mother communicated with her fetus by means of her nervous system. A French colleague of Ruysch, Doctor Joseph-Guichard Duverney (1648-1730), himself possessed a considerable collection of specimens. In a discussion on monstrosities Duverney would not exclude the possibility that these were the result of God’s divine will. Ruysch questioned such interpretations. In his commentary on the specimen of the monstrous creature with the harelip you can hear Ruysch think aloud on the reason(s) of why these monstrosities existed. ‘On observing that such young creatures have allready such discomfort, one needs to consider if