The anatomical preparations by Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) are part of the anatomical collection of the Academic Medical Centre in Leiden. They are centuries old. The material, body parts of deceased people, was prepared by Ruysch in the early 18th century. He often used the bodies of criminals, but also very young and stillborn children. Ruysch added all kinds of elements to the preparations, lace collars, bonnets, or even glass eyes. He turned them into true still lives. It is still a beautiful collection. The fact that these preparations, almost 400 years later, still look so good is due to the special embalming technique that Ruysch developed. As a result, his preparations have retained their natural color. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great was so impressed by Ruysch’s work that he bought almost the entire collection and had it shipped to Saint Petersburg. Through intervention of professor Albinus, a student of Ruysch, some of Ruysch’s preparations ended up in Leiden. Doctors and medical students can see them, but the general public cannot. When the Boerhaave Museum decided to exhibit them in 2015, this gave rise to ethical questions.
I was asked, what I, being a bioethicist, think of the public display of the preparations of anatomist Frederik Ruysch from the early 18th century.
The great thing about such an old preparation is that it is many things at the same time. First of all, it is a curiosity from the eighteenth century. Dressing up baby corpses and turning them into still lifes is not something we do nowadays. But it is also a story about the different moral values of that time. For example, with today’s ethical standards, we would never be allowed to use the bodies of criminals or still born for art works. In the past, there was no such thing as a right to the integrity of the body. Deceased criminals could end up as a preparation without any problem. They lost the right of ownership of their body. We now have different ideas about these practices. Someone has to give permission for his body to be used after his death. This is what we refer to as informed consent in medical ethics.
Perhaps, the anatomical preparations played a role in the education of doctors in earlier centuries, but this no longer the case. These preparations are of no educational value to today’s medical students. Nowadays, students learn a lot more about the human body by dissecting the bodies themselves. So that is not an argument for showing those preparations to young doctors, but not to the general public. You have to be consistent. Either you say, those (remnants of) people retroactively deserve the right to their physical integrity and therefore a grave. Or you say, we wouldn’t do that anymore, but these preparations are already here and they are too good to throw away.
In that case, I would choose to show those preparations to the public, especially to show their unique beauty. It’s real craftsmanship. I really like them a lot. They tell a story. I think those preparations deserve the label ‘art’. I know that I am moving on slippery ice now, because it is also about the definition of art. I will not go into that further now. I would be delighted if these preparations, which for years were only visible for a select group of medical professionals, now become part of the collection of a science museum and can be admired publicly. Though, I do have some issues with the plasticized corpses in Bodyworlds. These are recently acquired bodies. Where do these bodies come from? Did those people give their consent while they were alive? What did they get in return?