John Bulwer was born in London in 1606, the only surviving son of an apothecary named Thomas Bulwer and Marie Evans of St. Albans. He continued to work and live in London until his death in October 1656. Although information about his education is unclear, he was probably educated in Oxford (no degree) in the 1620s, and later, between 1650 and 1653, acquired a Medicinae Doctor (M.D.) degree at an unknown European university. In 1634 he married a woman known only as the “Widow of Middleton.” They had no children, and she predeceased him. Later in life Bulwer would adopt a girl named Chirothea Johnson, and, as he states in his will “bred her up from a child as my own.” She may have been deaf.
During the English Civil War Bulwer stopped working as a physician and concentrated on his study and writing. All his written works were created between 1640 and 1653. In total Bulwer published five works, all of which were either early examples or the first of their kind.
Anthropometamorphosis was Bulwer’s most popular work, reprinted at least three times in his lifetime. The first edition was published in 1650. The second edition of 1653, which is owned by the P. I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, was much enlarged and illustrated with many woodcuts. A third printing was a reissue of the second edition retitled “A view of the People of the whole World”. Considered to be the earliest book on tattooing and body mutilations, the book is a mixture of fact and fiction, some from traveler’s tales, some from early literature.
Frontspiece to Anthropometamorphosis
The title literally means “humanity-changing.” It is one of the first studies in comparative cultural anthropology and included a strong tone of social commentary. The full title, “Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d, or the Artificial Changeling. Historically presented, in the mad and cruel Gallantry, foolish Bravery, ridiculous Beauty, filthy Fineness, and loathesome Loveliness of most Nations, fashioning & altering their Bodies from the Mould intended by Nature. With a Vindication of the Regular Beauty and Honesty of Nature, and an Appendix of the Pedigree of the English Gallant,” reflected Bulwer’s views condemning practices that disfigured the human body and his intent to guide the reader towards keeping the normal body created by God.
The frontispiece to the 1653 edition shows a European woman, a hair-covered man and a South American Indian with full body paint standing side by side. They are being judged by Nature, Adam and Eve and a body of disapproving magistrates (including the ghost of Galen) for transforming their bodies, while the devil flies above them laughing and saying, “In the image of God created he them! But I have new-molded them to my likeness.”
The abundant woodcut illustrations in the book show all the manners known to Bulwer of decorating or transforming the human body, whether ancient or modern, New World or Old. The main body of the text consists of 23 sections, of which 15 are concerned with deformations or modifications to the head or face. These included artificially produced square heads, long heads, round heads, dog heads, high foreheads, broad foreheads, large noses, shovel noses, and noses lacking or with slit nostrils. He describes the use of lip rings and lip spikes and other lip fashions; hair, eyelash, and beard customs; cultures favoring long necks or no necks; tattooed faces and painted faces and bodies; and customs dealing with the “privy parts.” He also described naturally occurring abnormalities such as two headed people, dwarfs, giants, etc.
The appendix, entitled “The pedigree of the English gallant,” looks closely at how fashions in England have been influenced by practices in remote parts of the world. Bulwer uses the universal nature of body modification to demonstrate similar behaviors of humans everywhere. Bulwer may view some practices of remote tribes as laughable or barbaric, but no more laughable or barbaric than those of the “civilised” world.
Pedigree of the English Gallant
Work with the Deaf
Bulwer is best known today for his work in educating the deaf and his advocacy for an educational institution he called “The Dumbe mans academie.” He was the first person in Britain to discuss the possibility of educating deaf people. In his book Philocophus: or, the deafe and dumbe mans friend he collects information about deaf people living in Britain at that time. Through observations that some deaf people can “hear” the vibrations produced by musical instruments by bone conduction through the teeth, Bulwer came to believe that the body had a commonwealth of senses, for instance the eye could be used to perceive speech by lip-reading. He advocated setting up an academy to teach the deaf to speak and to educate them. Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand focuses on hand gestures used in speaking. It is a compendium of manual gestures, citing their meaning and use, and the hand shapes described in Chirologia are still used in British Sign Language.
Hand gestures from Chirologia (U.S. Public Domain)
Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke, was published in the same volume but with different pagination and is a manual for the effective use of gesture in public speaking. Pathomyotomia, or a Dissection of the significant Muscles of the Affections of the Mind was the first substantial English language work on the muscular basis of emotional expressions.
After the publication of Anthropometamorphosis, his last book, Bulwer returned to his practice as a physician. The book is available in the Nixon Library for those wishing to study it in more detail.
“John Bulwer,” Wikipedia.
“John Bulwer, Anthropometamorphosis.” Posted by Oklahoma University’s History of Science Collections, June 16, 2010.
“John Bulwer, Gesture and Education of the Deaf.” June 27, 2010 post in blog Res Obscura: a catalog of obscure things.
“For they are very expert and skillful in Diabolical Conjurations: Lionel Wafer in Central America, 1681.” April 20, 2011 post in blog Res Obscura: a catalog of obscure things.
All illustrations were directly digitized from the book except where otherwise noted.
For more information on the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library, contact Lisa Matye Finnie, Special Collections Librarian, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 210-567-2406.