An Anatomical Masterpiece

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus was a remarkable perfectionist, remembered for his beautiful anatomical work in Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body. Albinus lived 1697–1770, originally from Frankfurt, Germany and became a professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Leyden in 1721.

Albinus became fascinated with the idea of “homo perfectus,” which shows the body “subject to physical and mathematical laws both anatomically and physiologically.” He worked 22 years at finding this “homo perfectus,” and was influenced by one of the most famous physicians of all time, Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). Boerhaave, who was his mentor and friend, taught Albinus about the mechanical function of the body using mathematical laws to explain these theories. Albinus took on similar attitudes while putting together his anatomical book Tables of the skeleton and muscles of the human body. He insisted on being completely accurate in depicting the human body, comparing it to an architect drawing a building with all the measurements drawn to scale. He stated in the book’s preface, “And not a single picture has been drawn free hand. All have been measured, brought down to scale, either from an indeterminate distance, as the architects do…” A new technique of anatomical illustration emerged from this desire for accuracy. Albinus used a large wooden frame that had nets and grids attached with the body in the center, making his proportions and perspectives more precise.

Although Albinus was the mastermind of this anatomical operation, he needed the help of artist Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759) to make his visions a reality. Wandelaar became a close companion to Albinus when he moved in with Albinus and lived with him for 20 years, allowing him to be completely familiar with Albinus’ visions. Albinus strived for accuracy and perfection, causing Wandelaar’s artistic talent and opinions to be overlooked. Although the drawings needed to be under the direction of Albinus, Wandelaar had free range to draw the landscapes, architecture and lush backgrounds. One of the best known drawings displays a rhinoceros grazing in the background, which was the “first example of its species imported into Europe.”

This book displays human bodies with fluid motions showing the beauty of each pose and drawing. In order to make this a reality for Wandelaar, behind the specimen being drawn would be a man of equal height and stature standing in the same position. Albinus also moved away from the format of previous anatomy books, which first showed the outside of the body while working their way deeper to the skeleton. He aimed at creating the structure first, which was the skeleton, then working to the muscles.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a first edition English translation of this work that contains 40 copper plates of re-engraved copies of the originals done by Jan Wandelaar. It took Albinus eight years and 24,000 Dutch florins of his own money to create this illustrious book. In addition to the twelve plates representing the human body, there are sixteen additional engraved plates highlighting special muscles and parts of muscles.

Please drop by to see this magnificent treasure. The Nixon Library is open Monday – Friday 8 AM-5 PM.  We prefer appointments, but walk-ins are always welcome. Any questions about this post, please send to Mellisa DeThorne at dethorne@uthscsa.edu or 210-567-2470.

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern