Museum Boerhaave, Leiden

Announcement

The Museum Boerhaave is has funding problems and is in danger of being closed in January 2013. For further information and how to donate, see Save Museum Boerhaave campaign.


17th century science in Boerhaave museum Leiden

17th century science in Boerhaave museum Leiden by koopmanrob. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

The most interesting building of the present university is at No. 73 Rapenburg, one of the prettiest streets in Leiden, with a canal down the middle. The building contains an Aula (or Senate Chamber), the walls of which are lined with handsome portraits of most of its early and some of its more recent professors, and there is a lovely wooden staircase leading up to it. Unfortunately, this chamber is still in use for examinations and other university functions, and it is not open to the public, but the rest of the building can be admired. (The doorway to No. 73 also provides access to the university’s botanical garden.)

Boerhaave Museum. This museum, named after the former professor and physician, has been in existence for many years, but it has recently been completely restructured and installed in brand new quarters on the site of the former Boerhaave hospital. At an artistic level it has been beautifully done-the renovation retains the original architecture and the exhibit layout is spacious and encourages unhurried perusal. The emphasis is historical rather than didactive. with contents arranged in chronological sequence and not by subject area. We are made acutely aware that the division of science into specialized fields is a recent phenomenon and that in Leiden’s heyday the distinction between physics, chemistry, and even medicine was blurred. The museum has a commendable international flavor, less chauvinistic than might be expected, though achievements of Netherlands scientists are of course properly stressed. The Dutch have long been instrument makers for much of the world and a predominance of instruments in the exhibits reflects that-the collections of surgical tools, telescopes, and microscopes are especially noteworthy. Even seasoned specialists will be fascinated by the technical advances that the chronological style of the museum naturally unfolds.

One of the highlights of the museum is a faithful reproduction of Boerhaave’s anatomy theater, clearly patterned after the prototype in Padua. Individual instruments include three of van Leeuwenhoek’s original microscopes (which prove to have extremely tiny lenses), Leyden jars and batteries, Huygens clocks, as well as more modem items, such as the first artificial kidney (dialysis machine), designed by Dutchman Willem Kolff in 1943, and a prototype electron microscope manufactured by the Philips Co. in 1947. The museum also has a fine archival library, which occupies the site of the cells in which madmen were kept in the old hospital. (Is there a hidden message here?)

Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Leidse Flessen, Teylers Museum Haarlem

Leidse Flessen, Teylers Museum Haarlem by koopmanrob. Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Haarlem is in the heart of the Dutch bulb centre, and each spring the road from Haarlem to Leiden affords an incredible multi-coloured spectacle, unequalled anywhere in the world. The city itself has a history going back to the Middle Ages and counts Frans Hals and other artists among its former citizens. Its interest for our purposes lies in the Teylers Museum, the oldest museum in the Netherlands (founded 1778), dedicated by its founder to serve both science and the arts. Today the museum can hardly be classed as among the most distinguished institutions of its kind, but it has a certain charm and happens to be a good place to focus on two highlights in the history of science, one ancient and one very modem.

The museum’s first director, Martinus von Marum, was an indiscriminate collector, and the museum’s contents still retain their original haphazard character, including dinosaur skeletons, minerals of all kinds, old telescopes, and ancient air pumps. There is a battery of early Leyden jars and a friction generator for charging them, but little in the way of explanation to indicate how they work. One of the telescopes is a lovely wooden one, built by the Herschels in England.

One unique exhibit, typical of what an indiscriminate collector might acquire, is a skeleton of the famous Homo diluvii testis, a supposedly human witness of the biblical deluge. It illustrates one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of paleontology, promoted by an avid fossil collector, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer (1672-1733). Scheuchzer was obsessed with the search for remains of the miserable sinners who perished in Noah’s Flood and eventually actually believed that he had found human skeletons to fill the bill in a quarry on the German side of the Rhine, near Schaffhausen. The quarry men there, aware of his passion, obliged Scheuchzer with a steady supply of the skeletons over the next several years. Scheuchzer enthusiastically broadcast his discovery far and wide, with the warning “Take Heed!” as a preface to his tract. He might have applied this warning to himself, for one of his friends raised a valid objection to his sermonizing, namely that the skeletal vertebrae in his specimens lacked a canal for passage of the spinal cord and therefore could hardly be mammalian, much less human. But Scheuchzer was too full of enthusiasm to listen and at least part of the outside world agreed, for Homo diluvii testis became an accepted textbook item.

It was not until 1825 that the record was set straight: France’s Georges Cuvier came to Haarlem to examine the specimen there, and pronounced it to be the remains of a large salamander. It was then noted that all the specimens that Scheuchzer had obtained from the obliging German quarry men contained only the top half of the skeletons-the bottom half, which would have included a long tail, was invariably missing. The visitor will also note that the tailless skeletons are not much more than half a meter long, and it is not easy to understand today how anyone could ever have imagined them to be the remains of human beings, even without the problem of the spinal cord canal. (The skeleton is in Showcase 29 on the main floor. Several samples are provided, together with a Swiss stamp that pictures an uncut giant salamander skeleton, complete with tail.)

In a more recent period, Hendrick Antoon Lorentz was curator of the Teylers Museum for 16 years, a curious choice, given that he was a theoretical physicist. It appears that his teaching duties at the University of Leiden were becoming increasingly burdensome to him (he had been there for 30 years) and the curatorship was made available to him in 1912 to give him more time for his research. (Should we have invited a comment from a typically harried director of a present-day museum?) There is a portrait of Lorentz just by the entrance to the old Teyler library in the museum. His books and notes are kept here and are available for scholars who might need them.