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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 or 210-567-2470.

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Plagiarist from the Past

William Cowper is infamous for being one of the biggest medical plagiarists of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In 1698 Cowper published the book The Anatomy of Humane Bodies, becoming famous above and beyond the imaginable. Even though the attention was negative, any fame at all is good, right?

A short 13 years earlier, Govard Bidloo published his book Anatomia Humani Corporis using 105 beautiful plates drawn by Gerard de Lairesse and engraved by Abraham Blooteling. When Bidloo’s book did not create much attention or sales, he decided to sell 300 copies of his engravings to Cowper’s publishers. Cowper’s publishers asked him if he would translate Bidloo’s text from Dutch to English, while using the same information and engravings but with “…many of them showing a great deal of original research and fresh new insights.” When the book was published, Cowper added nine new engravings because “…he believed Bidloo’s work failed to properly express or cover relevant information,” while replacing Bidloo’s name and original title with his own. Cowper did not credit Bidloo on the title pages, but rather strategically placed Bidloo’s name in his introduction. Even though Cowper clearly plagiarized Bidloo’s work, plagiarism laws were not as strict as they are now. Many people plagiarized others’ work without giving credit, but Cowper’s had been significant because it clearly undermined Bidloo’s work and criticized the original author. Before the publishing of his disputed book, Cowper was elected in 1696 into the Royal Society as one of the first surgeons in the reputable group. Bidloo petitioned the Royal Society to repeal Cowper’s membership because of his act of plagiarism, but since Cowper legally purchased the plates from the publisher, there were no retributions.

Cowper was a credible anatomist despite his critics, performing research on significant medical topics and finding the bulbourethral glands. He also mentored and housed the young surgeon William Cheselden. Mark A. Sanders states: “Cheselden became the most skilled English surgeon of the first half of the 18th century,” giving Cowper some credibility in his medical abilities.

The Anatomy of Humane Bodies is located on the 5th floor of the Dolph Briscoe Library in the P.I. Nixon Library, along with Govard Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis. Come compare the two texts for yourself and see plagiarism of the 18th century at its finest. Contact Mellisa DeThorne at or call 210-567-2470 if you have any questions about this blog, or would like to view the special collections.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern

Photographs and Information Courtesy of:

National Library of Medicine, Historical Anatomies on the Web:

University of Windsor, Leddy Library:!OpenForm

William Cowper and His Decorated Copperplate Initials by Mark A. Sanders

The Compassionate Surgeon: A Tribute to Sir Charles Bell

Engraving of Leg Amputation- Photo Courtesy of

Sir Charles Bell was Scottish and grew up in Edinburgh during the 18th century. He was a part of the famous Bell surgeons of Scotland. His older brother  John Bell was a surgeon and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of the city of Edinburgh. John is best known for founding the subject of Surgical Anatomy. Charles attended lectures that his brother John gave at the University and apprenticed under him, influencing Charles’  love for surgical anatomy. John and Charles were both known for their compassion towards their patients. Charles struggled with the unsavory aspects of dissection of animals and humans. He also vehemently opposed animal experimentation because he despised inflicting pain on his patients. Charles stated in the preface of his Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: “In performing the operations of Surgery, this neglect of yourself is very necessary. Why simplicity should be so rare a virtue in Operations, is very remarkable; since it requires but this one rule- think only of your patient.”  Charles volunteered at the Battle of Waterloo, which took place in the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and put an end to Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule as Emperor of the French. The battle left 40,000 men dead or wounded, and volunteers were needed to help these fallen soldiers. Charles wrote to a friend of the battle:

“It is impossible to convey to you the picture of human misery continually before my eyes. What was heart-rending in the day, was intolerable at night…while I amputated one man’s thigh, there lay at one time thirteen, all beseeching to be taken next…”

Charles was a student while volunteering at Waterloo, allowing him to grasp the realities of his field outside of a classroom. He made advances in the science of physiology, with the study of nerves and description of  muscle sense or prorioceptive sensation. Bell’s palsy, which is facial paralysis due to nerve dysfunction, was named after Charles’ research findings. Charles became an important figure in London, where he lived for 40 years, and was knighted and appointed to the Chair of Anatomy of the Royal College of Surgeons. Charles was celebrated by many– For example, he went to Paris to visit the surgeon Philibert Joseph Roux, who announced to his class that they were dismissed because “You have seen Charles Bell, that is enough.” Charles was not immune to his importance among the surgical community and continued to write articles while compiling information from research.

One of his most celebrated works is the Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy that colorfully displays images of various operations. These detailed and beautiful images were intended to be a teaching tool for medical students, but they were also admired by the art community. Charles drew the pictures himself with the engravings done by Thomas Landseer. His compassion shines through with elegant images of hands carefully touching an amputated leg and shoulder.  He also gives his opinion on what responsibilities surgeons have, stating in the preface: “Nor is the public aware of the temptations which men of our profession withstand. Credit for great abilities, gratitude for services performed, and high emoluments are ready to be bestowed for a little deception, and that obliquity of conduct, which does not amount to actual crime.”

Successful and named the first Professor of Anatomy and Surgery of the College of Surgeons in London in 1824, Charles grew tired of the University and decided to move to private practice. Even though Charles was not teaching, he still worked hard on his studies of physiology and was knighted by King William IV in 1831. Charles was always a man of humbleness and at the age of 62 moved back to Edinburgh to be the Professor of Surgery, stating that “London was a good place to live in but not to die in.” He died in 1842 while traveling to London for unknown reasons.  Charles Bell teaches us the importance of humanity when dealing with patients and how surgeons can make a difference in everyone’s lives. He is the epitome of a person with many talents and passions that shares experiences with the world through his studies and artwork.

The P.I. Nixon Library owns a copy of Bell’s illustrious work Illustrations of the Great Operations of Surgery: Trepan, Hernia, Amputation, Aneurism, and Lithotomy, and I encourage you to view it for yourself. A man as interesting and influential as Sir Charles Bell should not be forgotten, so please come by to relive his masterpiece.

If you have any questions or concerns about this blog, please contact Mellisa DeThorne at or 210-567-2470.

Forever Historic,

Sarah Borque, Special Collections Intern


Information and quotations courtesy of:

Great Ideas in the History of Surgery By Leo M. Zimmerman, Ilza Veith

Sir Charles Bell: The artist who went to the roots! By Rehan Kazi