‘The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes’

“Where was the truth? Madeleine asked the African violet on the window-sill. She was no longer sure. The vile dog Bob had been dead for years but he would have lied in any case, had he been able. ..”

Three characters:

Ruth pulls the old man’s bag open and stares “into the cat’s unblinking eyes. His back was arched, his ginger hair bristled around his neck, and his legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. Every part of his body signalled, ‘Keep off!’ ” And Ruth (“the lady with the sky in her hair”) gives up nursing to become a taxidermist.

Lisa poses with fellow mathematicians by the patterned brick ‘masterpieces’ and she imagines the picture the camera will preserve: “Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, dome-headed, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.”

Madeleine, widowed sheep-farmer in the Lake District, realises that “hiding, and hidden away, she had wasted her married life because she hadn’t known she had the strength to resist. But she knew now …”

Friendship, memories, objects: how do we preserve the past? And how do we deal with the hand that life has dealt us?

For the three very different women, whose lives become intertwined, these stark questions have been the undercurrent of their lives – but, within the Cumbrian landscape, they learn to deal with them with warmth and humour .

ISBN 9781503036918
Littoralis Press/Amazon CreateSpace, p/b, £9.95 p/b 2015 (2nd edition)

Also Kindle versions through Amazon, and as ePub versions through Kobo etc

Comments and reviews

An intriguing novel in a haunting setting, rich in texture, humorous and concerned, raising important questions about science and our relation to the natural world, to the individuals we know and to the communities we live in. A lovely book. Jenny Uglow

An exhilarating and compelling read. A powerful and haunting story of genetic difference, interwoven with maths, taxidermy, and the tragedy of foot and mouth disease.Professor Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate

A many-faceted book … The account of the dreadful days of foot-and-mouth disease in the last epidemic is agonising and the Cumbrian accent is perfect.Jane Gardam

A charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory. I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions … an engrossing and enjoyable read.Kat Arney, LabLit Read the full review

A rich, absorbing, intriguing novel … All of (the characters) felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community. … An absorbing, clever writer …. – Mary Zacaroli, Oxford Times Read the full review

Ann Lingard skilfully weaves a handful of lives together … This engrossing and unusual tale is a window on the soul… and highlights something no embalmer can preserve: what it means to be an ordinary human being. – Michael Brooks, New Scientist

The book’s strength lies in the intense sense of time and place it creates in the reader’s mind. Images are conjured like old Polaroid photographs; faded snapshots filled with tinted memories – whether they are the horrors of sheep farming during the foot and mouth epidemic, or fleeting moments shared between illicit lovers. … a warm and atmospheric read. – Amy Strange, Bionews



The anatomists

Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) – anatomist, embalmer, man-midwife and praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, botanist with an interest in insects …

van neck & ruysch
The anatomical lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch: Van Neck

The Surgeons’ Guild was housed in De Waag in Amsterdam. My friend and former colleague, Dr Wil van der Knaap, was able to gain entrance for the two of us to see not only the painted heraldic shields of the surgeons, including the central shield for Frederik Ruysch himself, inside the roof of the restored Theatrum Anatomicum, but also the ‘masterpiece’ patterns of the bricklayers’ Guild (see ‘Patterns’ below).

Ruysch sometimes referred to himself as a konstenaar, or artist, and his Wunderkammer – of preserved plants and animals and human foetuses, dried, embalmed or fixed in alcohol, and his moralistic preparations and Tableaux of skeletons that were symbols of vanitas mundi – was visited by many high-ranking academics and others, including Peter the Great (who eventually bought the collection).

Cornelius Huyberts’ engravings of the Tableaux are preserved in the volumes of Ruysch’s Opera Omnia, the Thesauri,  in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photographs of all the pages of the Thesauri have more recently become available on the website of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médécine.

Tableaux from Thesaurus VIII
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

These Tableaux show Ruysch’s artistry in preparing tissues such as blood vessels and the mesenteric tissues from around the gut, and arranging them to represent handkerchiefs and trees and – more morbidly here – an opened tomb or sepulchre created from a preserved uterus, containing a foetus with a ‘crown of natural flowers’.

Title page, and Tableau I, Thesaurus VIII explanations
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

The Scot William Hunter (1716-1783) was, like Ruysch, an anatomist, embalmer and man-midwife, and was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. Remnants of his large anatomical museum – including the plaster casts of gravid uteri, and the bottles of human eyes mentioned in Ruth’s blog-post Making Eyes – are now held at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.

His anatomy dissections and lectures, and his embalming methods that allowed long-term dissections of cadavers, were famous and led to many ground-breaking discoveries. It’s worth noting that his lectures and demonstrations to the Royal Academy of Arts on the importance of scientific observation and accurate interpretation are still very relevant to the work of writers and artists today!

zoffany hunter
Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter lecturing

The use of écorchés (flayed preserved corpses) to demonstrate the body’s musculature is well-recorded and discussed elsewhere, but Hunter – again like Ruysch – sometimes arranged his specimens in ‘artistic’ poses. The body of a hanged smuggler was fixed in the position of a dying Roman soldier before rigor mortis set in: the écorché of ‘Smugglerius’ was used as a teaching aid and subsequently immortalised as a plaster cast by William Pink, still held in the collection of the Royal Academy.

William Hunter’s younger brother John Hunter (1729-1793) was also a surgeon and anatomist and a naturalist, who accumulated his own large collection of animals and humans, both dead and alive, in his own museum. A large part of the collection remains in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (Thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image)

In the background are the bones of the feet and lower legs of Charles Byrne, ‘the Giant O’Brien’ (died 1783), as recounted in the blog-post Copper Kettles by taxidermist Ruth Kowslowski in the novel: “Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.”  There is a fascinating video about Charles Byrne’s skeleton and genetic studies on acromegaly (a form of giantism) in the online version of the article “Should the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien be buried at sea?” by Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer.


As for Ruysch’s children, Rachel Ruysch was not only adept at making lacy sleeves for embalmed babies, but became a highly-respected artist, preserving the images of flowers and insects and reptiles in the rich colours and deep textures of her still-life paintings.


rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)

My thanks to ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image


What was the significance of the post-cards on the Café Waag table?

(Lisa) hastily pushed the postcards into a pile. They were all aerial views of tulip-fields; some were striped like the rough canvas of a deck-chair, narrow bands of red, orange, green and yellow; in others, the patterns were more intricate arrangements of rectangles and trapezoids, bounded by the dark curving ribbons of canals.” There is a longer extract from this chapter under Chromosome 4 of Ken MacLeod’s Human Genre Project.

tulip fields
Tulip fields: Frans Lemmens

Frans wrote to me that this postcard (which I bought in 2001) is “the best selling tulip image card in Holland. The publisher and I were astonished about this. We thought before that it would do well, but definitely not that it would become the best selling of all tulip fields”.

And what was so special about the brick patterns inside De Waag?

waag bricklayers1
The bricklayers’ ‘masterpieces’: photo Wil van der Knaap

The answer to the questions is that Lisa, Stefan, Kees and their colleagues – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, astronomers – were in Amsterdam for a conference on patterning and quasicrystal structure – and like crystallographers and the artist Maurits Escher before them, were working on the practice and theory of how shapes and images could be fit together to fill two- and three- and multi-dimensional space


As for the modern science of quasicrystals, my thanks to Professor Ian Stewart, who suggested Lisa might work on quasicrystals and sent me many relevant reprints, and to Professor Uwe Grimm.  Uwe, with the help of cardboard models laid out on our kitchen floor, helped me try to get to grips with the concept of the quasi-periodicity of repeating patterns in crystals: see, for example, What is Aperiodic Order? 

‘Making eyes’

cover 5crop
1st edn. cover. Photograph of artificial eye from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, by Rosamond Wolff Purcell (with my thanks)

As taxidermist Ruth explains about her work, “It’s so important to get the eyes and the eyelids right … the face is everything, and it’s far too easy to get the expression wrong.

Glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are probably best-known for their series of exquisite and scientifically-detailed flowers in the Ware Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston, USA, and the glass models of invertebrate animals (including sea-anemones modelled on PH Gosse’s engravings).

They also made glass eyes, for humans.

White spheres lie on cotton-wool in the compartments of a flat wooden box: blue, brown or green circles, dark centres – pot-boilers, money-spinners: artificial human eyes. On a workbench there are small bottles, pinboxes and wooden trays containing different body-parts: glass tentacles of different shapes and colours, sponge spicules, tiny shells. ‘Mix ’n match’ invertebrates amongst the powdered glass and pigments.” (from Ruth Kowslowski’s blog-post ‘Making Eyes’)

Philip Henry Gosse exclaimed about the beauty of the multi-faceted eye of the dragon-fly. Insects have ‘compound eyes’, made up of many individual units each with a lens and light-sensitive cells that form an image. The surface of some compound eyes – like those of the fruit-fly, Drosophila – looks a bit like the surface of a raspberry, each separate unit bulging slightly outwards.

The structure and image-forming method of insect eyes could not be more different from that of vertebrate eyes, or even eyes of the squid and octopus. Yet in the mid-1990s, Walter Gehring and his colleagues performed a series of what turned out to be ground-breaking experiments in the field of developmental genetics – they showed that the gene pax6 which initiates the early stages of eye-formation in the mouse could also initiate eye-formation in Drosophila. Not a mouse eye – but a fly eye. If the mouse gene was inserted into fly cells that would normally form a leg or antenna – a fly eye grew instead!


See Figures 3 and 5 of Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the eyeless Gene in Drosophila

As Ruth writes: “We know now that Evolution is a conservationist and throws very little away: ‘You want an image-forming retina? There’s a bit of photosensitive pigment kicking around somewhere. A bit of this and a little bit of that, let’s try them in this order instead …’ The ingredients are mixed in a different sequence, to a different recipe.”


This photo of William Hart’s fighting squirrels held in the collection at Castle Ward was in a National Trust magazine in 2002 – and was a major stimulus in making me want to write about a taxidermist.

ntpl boxing squirrels

© NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
My thanks to the National Trust and their Photo Library for permission to use this image

The Victorians were very fond of these anthropomorphised specimens, and artist Polly Morgan has taken this trend to new, exciting levels. In the novel, Ruth mentions Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-Party’ and although all of Potter’s works are now held in private collections, there are photos of several of his kitten tableaux at the Booth Museum, Brighton – where Booth’s own taxidermal preparations are on display.

Walter Potter: Kittens’ tea-party

To learn more about how taxidermists work, I visited and watched George Jamieson at Cramond and Colin Scott in Hawick.

This very good BBC video , A Taxidermist’s Tale, shows George (who also taught Polly Morgan) at work.

The 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Cumbria

Madeleine Tregwithen, one of the main characters in The Embalmer’s Book, had her sheep flock ‘culled out’ in 2001; her neighbour Daniel’s pedigree herd of cattle was subsequently infected and killed.

So much has been written and photographed about this terrible time, so many stories have been recorded in print and audio and on film. Mathematical analyses and future predictions of the spread of disease continue, based on the very large data set that was gathered at the time.

Nick May’s exhibition of photographs, Till the cows come home, continues to haunt me.


nick may's Dodds-Parlour-1

‘Dodds’ parlour’.
© Nick May. I am indebted to Nick for giving me permission to use this photograph

Note:  Herdwick semen and embryos were collected during FMD and stored in the Sheep Trust’s gene bank, and were later were used successfully to breed new lambs: see my article, ‘Moving On‘ on page 22 of Firecrane#2


The character Lisa Wallace, mathematician at the University of Liverpool, is an achondroplasic.

Tom Shakespeare, a friend and former colleague, with whom I worked for two years on out two-year Wellcome Trust-funded Talking Science in Cumbria project, is himself achondroplasic – and he introduced me to Jo Hookway and Margaret Milne, both of whom were delightfully generous (and humorous) in helping me to try to understand what it is like to be a female ‘person of restricted growth’. Sandy Marshall, formerly of the Restricted Growth Association also gave me lots of helpful background information.

There is more about achondroplasia – about a 19th-century skeleton in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, and about James Jack who was a technician there, in the stories I wrote during my Visiting Fellowship at the Genomics Forum. ‘Stories about dwarves’, copied elsewhere in this blog, in addition to containing one of Joyce Gunn Cairns’ delicate drawings, also has an extract from the novel about ‘Lisa’.

Tom Shakespeare and Professor John Burn of Newcastle University made these ‘talking heads’ videos about achondroplasia.

(videos coming soon – sorry for delay)

The videos are reproduced with kind permission from Newcastle University – ©1998 Copyright Newcastle University; All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Tom and John, and the University audio-visual service.

You should have been terminated!’ John Burn tells Tom ….



‘Kissing babies’

The first blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’, Chapter 6 in The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes

A broadsheet photograph, front page, shows the politician, jowly, slightly sweaty,  holding up the baby. We cannot tell the sex of the child because only its face is visible, encircled by white fake-fur, but its arms are rigidly extended, and its wide-open eyes are fixed on the politician’s bushy eyebrows. The child’s mouth, frozen by the photographer’s flash, is half-open and perhaps bellowing in fear.

In 1697, Czar Peter the Great kissed a baby in the house of Frederik Ruysch, Praelector in Anatomy of the Amsterdam Surgeon’s Guild. This baby, pink and open-eyed, lay peacefully amongst embroidered cloths, and did not emit a sound.


ruysch baby
Baby with open eyes. Photo by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, in ‘Finders, Keepers‘ (Purcell & Stephen J Gould, 1992)


‘The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find amazing’: a comment in 1996 by a member of the Royal Family. She’s right, of course, and she never aspired to be a People’s Princess. It is amazing. And they probably don’t.

So why do mothers hold out their babies? What is the purpose of the kiss? To test the politician’s humanity, to check that he (for it is usually a ‘he’) has the country’s future at heart even though it may have been presented to him in all its noisome grubbiness?

Peter the Great had different reasons. The baby that he kissed was not just resting in its cradle but was long dead, embalmed and displayed as a specimen in Ruysch’s Wunderkammer. The story was put about by Dr Ruysch’s maid that the Czar of all the Russias believed the baby was alive, because its skin was soft and blooming, as delicate as the plums that Ruysch’s daughters painted in still-life. Another servant disagreed: the Czar had attempted to breathe Life into the not-living.

Peter the Great (photo from NN Dict. Biog.

Peter was Tall — 6 foot 7 inches — as well as Great, but despite his height he could certainly see that the baby was not alive. He had already spent days examining Ruysch’s Cabinets, and talking with the skilful anatomist, embalmer and Konstenaar (artist), a man he still referred to 20 years later as his ‘teacher’.

Peter kissed the child in recognition of Ruysch’s skill, for the child was lifelike, in both its colour and form. Its eyes were open, fringed with lashes, and stared unblinkingly at the Czar. The glass eyes gave the child the appearance and power of life. Perhaps that kiss was also elicited by pity as well as wonder at the baby’s innocence and beauty. Who now can tell? But the story of Peter’s apparent gullibility has been preserved for more than 300 years.

Papin  implies that even Death — who thought he had got his hands on the child — is forced to think otherwise by Ruysch’s artistry:

Mortuus, arte tua, Ruyschi, / Vivit, docet, infans,/ Elinguis loquitur; Mors timet ipsa sibi.

(Through thy art, O Ruysch, a dead infant lives and teaches and, though speechless, still speaks. Even Death itself is afraid.’ (1)

 The recipe for Ruysch’s preservative fluid, his liquor balsamicus, was a closely-guarded secret, but was based on alcohol, probably brandy from Nantes, mixed with herbs and pepper. Balsam or balm, embalming, balsemen, all refer to aromatic substances and their uses, as ointments and unguents. In 1717, Peter the Great came back to Amsterdam for a second visit, and bought Ruysch’s entire collection and had it transported to his own Kunstkammer in St Petersburg. A rumour was put about that the sailors drank the brandy from half the vials, but this surely wasn’t true for the Czar would certainly have had the sailors put to death. One might say it was a missed opportunity for the Czar, for what delightful retribution it would have been to display their skeletons and pickled body parts: ‘Hand of a light-fingered thief’, ‘Liver of a man who drank embalming fluid’, ‘Sea-legs of a sailor’.

Nevertheless the alcoholic preparations continued to present a temptation for a couple of centuries to come for even in the twentieth century a janitor in the Anatomy Department at Leiden was caught drinking from a preparation made by Ruysch’s contemporary, Albinus.

The embraced baby looked good, it even smelt good (oil of lavender was included in the liquor), but it was the pinkness of its flesh, the inference of warmth, that made it seem alive. And there, literally, lay another secret recipe.

For Ruysch was not merely an expert embalmer, he was the most successful of the 17th-century anatomists who were learning the topography of the body’s multiple, ramifying vessels through the art of injecting them with colourful preservatives. Swammerdam injected mercury into blood vessels, using a special syringe invented by Reinier de Graaf; by 1667 he and van Hoorne were able to fill the blood vessels of the uterus with a mixture of warmed red wax and tallow. Ruysch studied Swammerdam’s technique and refined the recipe, probably including resin and coloured essential oils (only Peter the Great’s court physician was let into the secret). Anastomosing blood vessels and lymphatics were revealed like delicate coloured lace.

Rachel Ruysch, creator of exquisite paintings of flowers and insects, the painted texture so detailed as to be almost tactile, sat lace-making — not knitting — while her father severed the heads or arms or legs of injected and embalmed babies.  She made lace-trimmed batiste sleeves and lacy collars, which were wrapped (‘prettily and naturally’, according to her father) around sewn-up stumps and wounds; a tiny pink arm holds out a thread from which dangles a preserved eye; another arm, clothed in a pretty sleeve, reaches down to clasp an enlarged bladder. Babies in tiny coffins were dressed in lace garments and adorned with flowers and beads. In the Boerhaave Museum, Leiden, and amongst the remnants of Czar Peter’s collection in St Petersburg (photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell) are the jars that contain embalmed foetuses, naked except for their beads.

Beads adorn their necks, their waists, ankles, elbows, wrists or knees, in single, doubled or tripled strands of blue and white and sometimes green. Did Rachel thread these too? What is their significance? We may never know, but they are un-Dutch, primitive.

Did Rachel, in her teens, help her father as he fixed a foetus’ sitting posture and tied the necklace around its neck? Did she want to kiss and hug the sweetly adorned, reanimated form?

allegory whole
Allegorical portrait of an artist; van Musschen. From National Gallery of Art, Washington

In 1685, when Rachel is 22 years old, Michiel van Musschen paints her, the subject of An Allegorical portrait of an Artist. He is twice her age, and arranges the thick rope of her hair across her bare shoulder. She is beautiful and serene, her skin is clear and soft. Van Musschen compares her to Minerva, the patroness of Art, and a baby-faced cherub flies down to place a laurel wreath upon her dark curls. Rachel would like to play with the black-and-white spaniel that scampers around the table, but she must sit still for she is dignified, intelligent, an object to be desired.

van neck & ruysch
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch; Jan van Neck 1683

Not so her brother, Hendrik. His portrait is that of a young boy, a still embryonic doctor and anatomist. In 1683 Jan van Neck paints The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch, showing members of the Surgeons’ Guild. They examine the placenta of the well-preserved body of an over-large but newborn baby. The baby is pink, apparently merely sleeping although Ruysch has opened up his abdomen. The tracery of placental blood mimics the lace cravats of the surgeons, and the umbilical cord is a gilded rope. Hendrik, at that time aged twenty, is shown as a boy and holds a baby’s skeleton.

So many babies! ‘Where do they all come from? Where do they all belong?’

Rachel and her husband, the portrait painter and lace-merchant Juriaen Pool, were to have ten children. We do not know if any of their babies died. But would she and Juriaen have asked her father to embalm them, so they might live forever? We would like to think it was unlikely, but we cannot tell.

Ruysch’s babies were not for entertainment or even to be used as specimens for teaching anatomy, they were artworks — and moralistic in tone. They were symbols of Vanitas mundi, the pointlessness of pleasure: ‘we’re doomed, we’re going to die!’ (Ruysch himself died in 1731, at the great age of 93, but it isn’t recorded whether his longevity was due to inhalation of liquor balsamicus fumes.)  They were not regarded at that time with horror or disgust. Death was everywhere, a daily occurrence, it was God’s Will (a Calvinistic God, at that) so we would do well to remember the transience of our lives on earth, and the ultimate irrelevance of earthly objects. Ruysch’s babies were all perfect, and perfectly virtuous and innocent.

The ceiling of the Surgeons’ Guild, Der Waag. Ruysch’s shield is in the centre

(Image by Paul Keller: credit – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5733195)

 Ruysch certainly had access to large numbers of both normal, and teratologically abnormal, foetuses. In 1668 he was entrusted with the training of Amsterdam’s midwives. Ten years later he was appointed as ‘doctor to the court’, which allowed him to take possession of all the dead babies found in the harbour.  It was a period of history when birth rates and mortality rates were high, for many reasons. Today we are scarcely replacing ourselves, the rate of reproduction is 2.1 in Britain, even less in Italy, that country of babies and extended families; unwanted babies need no longer be conceived.

But unwanted babies will always find their way into the world, and be abandoned. A thin wail, a choking cry, comes from a telephone kiosk, a doorstep, a handbag on Paddington  station. In Hamburg there is a ‘postbox’ where a desperate mother can lift the flap and leave her baby on a warm and comfortable bed, no questions asked, no identification necessary. (Is there a warning, as on Low Bridges – ‘Max width, max height’ – to prevent over-large parcels being posted?) The newly-delivered baby is lifted from the bed, kind hands stroke her silky hair and touch the pulsing fontanelle. Does she understand that comforting kiss, that it signifies Life?

Ruysch’s babies mock the frailty of their parents, who gave them brief life. A foetal hand, its severed wrist hidden by a lacy cuff, plays ball with a ‘segmentum humani testiculi’; in another jar, the lace-capped leg of a baby rudely kicks a prostitute’s syphilitic skull.


(1) From Death Enlightened (1970) A M Luyendijk-Elshout. JAMA 212, 121-126