Book Review: The Courtiers’ Anatomists

BookReviewLogoReview by Elisabeth Brander

In the history of anatomy, certain people and places have proved to be a popular topic. Andrea Carlino, Sachiko Kusukawa, and many others have considered the significance of 16th century anatomists, often emphasizing the work of Andreas Vesalius, while Andrew Cunningham has taken a broad look at Enlightenment-era anatomy with a particular focus on Italy and England. In The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Anita Guerrini, professor of history at Oregon State University, examines a place and time that has not been the focus of as much academic interest. Her latest monograph describes the activities of a group of anatomists working at the Paris Academy of Sciences during the 17th and 18th centuries.

23130498Guerrini’s narrative is rich and complex. By using a broad framework that discusses the importance of animal dissection for the development of early modern experimental science, she deftly touches on several key components of anatomical practice during the French Enlightenment. The stage is set with an overview of the Parisian anatomical scene during the 17th century: the rivalry between the physicians of the Paris Faculty of Medicine and the surgeons at Saint-Côme for access to dissection material, the question of whether reading texts or performing dissections was more beneficial for the study of anatomy, and the impact of William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. The physiological discussions precipitated by Harvey, and the mechanistic theories of René Descartes, became central to the work of a number of French anatomists including Jean Pecquet and Louis Gayant, who embraced animal dissection as a means of investigating structure and function. These men carried out much of their work at the Paris Academy of Sciences, an intellectual organization founded in 1666 whose members had a broad interest in scientific inquiry and were active in fields including mathematics, astronomy and, of course, anatomy.

The scope of The Courtiers’ Anatomists is much greater than a history of anatomical procedures. The story of the Academy is intertwined with the story of the intellectual network of scholars and courtiers known as the French Republic of Letters, the outward display of royal power, and the relationship between science and the arts. The phrase “courtiers’ anatomists” is itself reflective of these themes. The anatomists of the Academy often frequented the salons established by the French nobility, where they presented their research and sometimes even conducted dramatic experiments. In the Academy itself, one aspect of their work was the glorification of Louis XIV’s power. The most dramatic example of this was the Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux, an impressive elephant folio publication that showcased the anatomy of a variety of exotic animals. In addition to putting artistic innovations such as copperplate engraving and trompe l’oeil in the service of scientific illustration, the Mémoires was designed to showcase Louis’ authority. For example, the first animal presented in the work was a lion, a choice that made little sense from a scientific standpoint, but, given the lion’s association with royalty, was effective in terms of royal propaganda.

The complexity of Guerrini’s work means that some readers will be in danger of occasionally getting lost. Some background knowledge of William Harvey’s work on circulation, Descartes’ theory of mind-body dualism, and the development of the Republic of Letters would be a useful navigational tool. Even so, The Courtiers’ Anatomists has much to offer anyone with an interest in scientific developments in early modern Europe. In her conclusion, Guerrini says that she hopes readers will gain “a new perspective on the messy and idiosyncratic origins of modern science” (245). Her hopes will most likely be realized.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library in St. Louis.  She enjoys the sense of wonder that working with rare books brings her.  They also provide an endless source of inspiration for her endeavors into creative writing, which often incorporate aspects of medical and print history.

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