What do you look like now? What will you look like then?

The 4th blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, Chapter 19, The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

Louis van Bils sold his secret recipe for embalming bodies to the States of Brabant and the University of Louvain, in 1664; it required copious quantities of rum and brandy. In 1669 de Bils also tried to sell his recipe in the northern Netherlands, in Leiden and Amsterdam, with the help of Dr Tobias Andreae, ‘Professor of Physick at Duysburgh on Rhyn’, but they met considerable resistance from Dr Frederik Ruysch. His own recipe was secret, after all, and would later be the envy of a Russian Czar.

These days embalming is a quicker, cheaper process, syringes attached to electric pumps, cheap ready-made preservatives, and suction tubes. Let’s not bother with the details. Better to drink the rum and brandy with the funeral meats.

Regnier de Graaf, 17th-century Dutch anatomist and physician (and also a Fellow of the Royal Society in London) whose name lives on today in the Graafian follicles of the ovary, devised a syringe that Jan Swammerdam found very useful. By then, the European anatomists were all at it, shooting up warm coloured waxes or mercury or resins into blood vessels and lymphatics, and dissecting tissues or dissolving them away – corrosion  casting – to follow the course of the now-visible vessels. (Some still do it today, with the modern techniques of injection and plastination. Anatomy can no longer keep a secret.)

William Hunter, surgeon, accomplished teacher and accoucheur to royalty, and his brother John, surgeon and anatomist, their assistants and their protegés – they were all busy injecting and dissecting, delving into the twists and anastomoses of the body’s vessels, in chickens and alligators, rabbits and frogs, humans, dogs and leopards. For how could one perform corrective surgery on humans in the metaphorical dark? Comparative anatomy was a useful tool, for what might be indistinct in one species might be more clearly visible and understood in another.

De Graaf started with the proverbially fecund rabbit, William Hunter worked with women. In 1751 he procured the body of a woman in late pregnancy, and during the next 20 years he studied pregnancies at various stages.  There are ten life-size plaster models of the gravid uterus in Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, each uterus in situ in the abdomen, the mother’s thighs sawn through to expose gigots of meat. No lacy caps disguise the stumps, this is anatomy for instruction not moralisation. We don’t know whether the real-life mothers were prostitutes nor do we care. The colours of  the plaster casts are as fresh and bright as though uterus and foetus are alive, pink flesh, red and blue blood. The complex spatial puzzle, the three-dimensional fit between mother and child is made clear. ‘The whole of them are exactly like nature herself, and almost as good as the fresh subject’.

(See below (1) For further information on these images)

Hunter employed artists like Jan van Rymsdyck to draw and paint pictures of the injected and dissected specimens at each stage. The texture of the life-size paintings in The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus (1774) is almost the equal of Rachel Ruysch’s skills, a window is reflected in the damp membrane around a life-size foetus rather than on the moist bloom of a Ruyschian grape. Or on the glass cornea of an artificial eye.

Amongst the many specimens in the Hunterian Museum is a glass receptacle containing one of William’s injected placentas, a grey slab of tissue through which the silvery worms of mercury coil, anastomose and interdigitate. Who discovered what? John Hunter, too, had worked on the human uterus. Dispute arose between the brothers, and Benjamin Franklin again poured oil on their troubled waters. In Joshua Reynold’s portrait of John, the glass jar standing close to Giant O’Brian’s bony feet holds a section of placenta injected with red wax.

John, now Surgeon-General in the army, experimented on bringing dead bodies to life, or the near-dead, anyway, bodies rescued from near-drowning. By pumping warm air into their lungs, they were resuscitated and began to breathe again. Although he dissected and described the electric organs of the ray Torpedo, he did not try to use electricity to galvanise bodies to life. That was for Mary Shelley to imagine. But in 1818 James Jeffroy, Regius Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow, used bellows to blow air into the lungs of the dead murderer Matthew Clydesdale. The terminals of the newly-invented galvanic battery had already been connected to Clydesdale’s body, and when the current was switched on, his eyes opened, his tongue protruded and his lips moved. Did Jeffroy believe the man had come back to life? He plunged a scalpel into the murderer’s carotid artery, and the man ‘fell dead on the floor’. Onlookers fainted!

Dr William Hunter and his colleague Dr William Cruikshank put the injection technique to a less honourable use. In 1775 they embalmed Mrs Mary van Butchell, aged 36 years, with the help of her dentist husband Martin. Hunter’s recipe was quick and simple. Mix 5 pints oil of turpentine, 1 pint Venice turpentine, 2 fluid ounces oil of lavender, and vermilion. The solution was injected into Mary’s blood vessels until all her skin took up the reddish colour and the body was left to lie for a couple of hours to allow the solution to diffuse further through her tissues. Then her viscera were removed and washed in water, and injected and steeped in camphorated ‘spirits of wine’.  She was injected a second time, her viscera were replaced and the body cavities filled with camphor, nitre (potassium nitrate) and resin before being sewn up. The ‘outlets’ of her body were also filled with camphor and her skin was rubbed with oils of rosemary and lavender. Wearing a lace dress and with a rosy-pink complexion, Mary was laid on a bed of Plaster of Paris to absorb moisture and, it is said, was displayed in the window of Martin’s house.

It is also said that this bizarre display was (a) to drum up custom for Martin’s dental practice and (b) because Martin could have access to Mary’s money only while she was ‘above ground’. Whatever version of the truth, the second Mrs van Butchell was unimpressed. Mary was sent to stay at Hunter’s museum in Great Windmill Street.

Preservation for the after-life, preservation as an object of worship, preservation to ‘make a point’, icons and auto-icons, anatomical aids and anatomical art: we humans can rationalise almost anything that we do. Lenin, a modest man, did not have much say about the matter after his death, but Jeremy Bentham (died 1832) definitely wanted to hang around and be useful. It’s a myth that he wanted to be displayed at University College London, for he wished to be useful as an anatomical specimen, and it’s a myth that he was embalmed. He was a taxidermal preparation, dressed in his own clothes which Professor George Thane noted in 1898 ‘were stuffed with hay and tow around the skeleton, which had been macerated and skilfully articulated.’ The head of the specimen is ‘so perfect that it seems as if alive’ – and is made of wax. Bentham’s real head was mummified and dried, not unlike one of the shrunken heads in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Collection. Wrapped in a bituminous cloth, it was originally placed out of sight inside his torso.

The dead have so many secrets, so many different stories.

Frank Buckland did not mention the state of his hero John Hunter’s body when he found the coffin in St Martin’s vault but there are instances of bodies that fail to decay. Some of the 18th –  and 19th-century bodies excavated from Christ Church crypt in Spitalfields in 1984 were preserved by saponification, their fatty tissue having converted into a stable brownish-white wax of saturated fatty acids and their salts This adipocere characterises the famous ‘Soap Lady’ whom Joseph Leidy gave to Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum in 1874. Perhaps the same had happened to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife, Elizabeth Siddall. It is said that she remained intact and beautiful when the impoverished drug-addicted poet sent Charles Augustus Howell to retrieve his poems from her coffin (though it’s certainly a myth that her red-gold hair had continued to grow so as to fill the coffin).

Not so beautiful are the bog-bodies nor are they as well preserved as the fatty ‘bog-butter’, 2000-year-old wrapped packages recently found buried in an Irish bog. But the torso of Lindow Man from a Cheshire bog and the bodies of Tollund and Grauballe Men from Denmark are a couple of thousand years old, and probably the victims of ritual killing. Tanned, shrunken but preserved by the anoxic acidity of peat, with teeth and hair intact, they can still reveal some secrets and Grauballe Man is the most revelatory of all.

Dissections are out of the question because these bodies are valuable archaeological specimens, but computerised tomography or CT scanning uses X-rays to generate 3D images so we can nevertheless look inside. Grauballe Man doesn’t have a hard skeleton because the acid peat has dissolved the calcium, so his ‘bones’ are more like rubber. And his face has been re-modelled by the earlier conservators at the museum who padded the skin under his eyes with putty like a Pharaonic mummy. Sadly for Irish Cloneycavan Man, his face has been re-modelled too, but by the murder weapon. But he still has lovely red hair, slicked into a Tin-Tin quiff with Iron Age hair-gel, a mixture of vegetable oil and the resin of a French or Spanish pine.

No scalpel is needed now to look at bones and sinews, no syringe to find blood vessels and lymphatics. Sophisticated machines can look inside our living bodies, we can even watch our heart beat. We can even watch our foetuses suck their thumbs.Twin CT-scanners, combined with positron emission tomography, PET, can create pictures of the insides of living bodies as they have never been seen before.

As for the preserved dead, we can analyse the DNA of their last meal. ‘Ötzi’, deep-frozen for 5000 years in an Ötztal glacier, ate ibex and red deer and vegetables before the arrow penetrated his shoulder.

Mis-quoting Papin, ‘Through thy science … a dead person lives and teaches and, though speechless, still speaks’. But the story, mis-remembered, can speak with many tongues.


(1) Reflection of a dissection room window in the chorion (outermost membrane) covering a foetus – for more on Jan van Rymsdyck’s drawings and etchings of William Hunter’s dissections of the gravid uterus, see The Sterile Eye blog.

The artificial eye is in Peter the Great’s collection in St Petersburg and was photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell for the chapter ‘Dutch Treat: Peter the Great and Frederik Ruysch‘ in Finders, Keepers, Stephen J Gould and Rosamond Wolff Purcell, Hutchinson 1992 (she generously gave Ann Lingard permission to use the image on the cover of the First Edition of The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes). There is a short video about the book on YouTube.

Rachel Ruysch’s painting,  An arrangement of flowers by a tree-trunk, is in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. (Ann Lingard thanks the ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image.)