‘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 ….




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.)

Making Eyes

The 3rd blog by ‘Ruth Kowslowski’ from The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes, Chapter 15


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, pin-boxes 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. In 1860, Philip Henry Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica was published, illustrated with engravings of coloured sea-anemones and corals. A few years later, an Englishman living in Dresden showed these pictures to glass-maker Leopold Blaschka. ‘Marine creatures preserved in spirits look like grey rubber,’ he said. ‘Why not show their true colours by modelling them in glass?’ Leopold accepted the challenge: he had already made glass orchids, so now he merged his art with science, modelling the exquisite and minute details of invertebrate animals, making them objects for the museum and scientific study rather than ornaments for the drawing-room.

Later, he and his son Rudolf were to give up these animals and Haeckelian embryos for a ten-year commission to make the Harvard glass flowers,  but in those early days their business was not yet profitable –  so they created jewellery, and glass eyes for cosmetic use by the blind.

We don’t know where Frederik Ruysch obtained the glass eyes to fill the orbits of his embalmed and Death-defying Dutch babies in the 17th century but they obviously did the trick because the babies’ winning looks won the heart of great Czar Peter.


‘Auto-icon’ of Jeremy Bentham, University College London

The philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832, probably had the foresight to choose his own glass eyes (but he clearly had not planned that his mummified head would be stored in the dark inside his torso).


Can we defy Death, and  preserve and repair our ageing body-parts, can the blind really be made to see again? Human eyes are such complicated balls of cells.

William Paley had argued in his Natural Theology in 1802 that the eye, like a telescope, could only have been designed by a Maker. (But the Maker must have been having a visual migraine when he designed the mammalian retina, back-to-front.)

Charles Darwin struggled to understand how these ‘organs of extreme perfection’ could have arisen from chance mutations alone. ‘To suppose that the eye … could have been formed by natural selection seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree,’ he wrote. It’s almost enough to turn one into a Creationist or propose the intelligent mind and hand of a Designer. There is the implication that Evolution had foresight and saw its future goal.

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.

The ingredient  pax6 has never been allowed to rest, we need that gene as much as a flatworm does. In the embryo of a fly the product of  pax6 directs the development of the eye. Gosse examined an insect’s eye under his microscope in the 1850s: ‘How gorgeously beautiful are these two great hemispheres that almost compose the [dragonfly’s] head, each shining with a soft satiny lustre of azure hue,’ he wrote. ‘You see an infinite number of hexagons, of the most accurate symmetry and regularity of arrangement.’ Each of those ‘hexagons’ contains a lens, and a careful anatomist with a steady hand can prepare an insect’s eye so as to look through it himself.

Van Leeuwenhoek (who lived a mere 50 years from 1675-1725, but achieved so much), looked through his microscope fitted with the prepared eye of a honey bee at a church steeple (‘which was 299 feet high, and 750 feet distant’) and saw multiple inverted images of the steeple. It scarcely seems possible that van Leeuwenhoek could have seen and understood so much of the natural world through a handheld instrument – the microscope is displayed in the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden – that is barely two inches tall.

The surface of the fruitfly Drosophila’s eye resembles a small raspberry. If the pax6 gene is injected into the embryonic cells that should form a Drosophila leg, the raspberry-like eye grows instead. Even more exciting and astonishing is that the raspberry will also grow if the pax6 equivalent from a mouse is injected into the fly embryo! (1) A mouse’s eye is like ours, as different from a fly’s eye as is a fly’s wing from a bat’s. And so it is with pax6 from the squid which, like the octopus, is almost unbelievably related to creeping slugs and snails, and which has an eye that is superficially like a mammal’s (this time, God designed the retina the right way round). Squids, jet-propelled and predatory, need their big eyes to see their prey – the Blaschkas’ glass squid is translucent and delicate, with lustrous dark eyes.

The pax6 gene in the living, growing animals has been conserved, and put to different uses. Biologists have identified it and its related ingredients, they even know something of the recipe from which a human eye is made, but they cannot reproduce it in a culture-dish, they cannot make eyes. Yet.

Biologists can ‘make’ different sorts of cells. Take a fertilised mouse or human egg and nurture it in a culture dish for several days so that its cells divide and divide again, to form a hollow blastocyst. Imagine a football with a pork-pie suspended inside it, and shrink it down in your imagination to the size of a pinhead: that is a 6-day blastocyst and the ‘pork-pie’ is a ball of embryonic stem cells. Stem cells, that each contain the complete book of recipes to form any other type of cell in the growing embryo; ‘the secret of eternal life’, a cellular equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, the magic ingredient that will allow us to repair ourselves for ever. Not quite, but stem cells have their uses.

Van Leeuwenhoek looked through his tiny microscope and watched red blood cells circulating in the blood-vessels of a tadpole’s tail. He would have thought it almost unbelievable that stem cells from a blastocyst could be turned into red blood cells in a culture dish; or into nerve cells, or muscle cells. (He would have been even more disbelieving to see how frogs’ eggs could be manipulated to produce clones).

Scientists can persuade corneal stem cells to grow new pieces of cornea, they can even persuade embryonic stem cells to change into a kind of retinal cell. But they cannot yet grow an eye, and if they could, how would they rewire it to the brain? All those millions of wires bound together in a cable, each needing their own connections in the brain. The Designer made an unintelligent muddle with those wiring diagrams, too, crossing over the cable from the right eye’s socket to the left brain, and vice versa.

William Hunter, FRS (1716-1783), anatomist, and man-midwife to Queen Charlotte and the gentry,  dissected many corpses throughout his studies and demonstrations of anatomy. As President of the Royal Academy, he also stressed the links between science and art, and commissioned  paintings and drawings of the three-dimensional structures that he dissected, as aids to surgery and deconstruction. Many of the contents of his London collection were transferred to Glasgow after his death. Upstairs in Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, on a wooden shelf, are multiple rows of jars containing eyes. Intact, they stare at you while you stare at them and, because they are dissociated from their faces you cannot tell whether they stare in hatred or fear or even, perhaps, amusement. Why did Hunter collect so many? Was he working on a study of the anatomy and development of the eye?

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Clemente Susini: Organ of Sight.    Wax model, 1803

But look at this. A woman sleeps sweetly, unaware that her body has vanished leaving only her head with its soft pink lips and perfect teeth, nestling on a silken cloth. We need only see her head because Organ of sight shows the blood and nerve connections to the eye, as known in 1803. Clemente Susini’s wax woman’s eyes are closed, so we need not be afraid.

But the eyes of Ana Maria Pacheco’s wooden sculpted heads engage you at once – stark white with dark irises and pupils, outlined by thin black lines, they look out at us slyly, laughingly, wryly, openly, in sadness and in pain, from their painted wooden faces. In Dark Night of the Soul (1999) the naked victim has his head covered by a cloth so that he may not see the archers aiming at him, or perhaps that we may not look into his eyes and see the terror in this so-called terrorist’s soul. The eyes of the carved watchers reveal their despair and make us weep.

(My thanks to Ana Maria Pacheco and Pratt Contemporary Art for permission to use this image)

Elsewhere, thirteen heads stare out of a compartmentalised box (Box of Heads, 1983) and their white faces and gashed red mouths catch our glance one by one, and hold it. Individuals, their thoughts are almost visible and we are forced to wonder about them, for though disembodied they seem all too real. (It is not just their eyes, but also their teeth, that make them real, the porcelain teeth, with all the irregularities and imperfections of individual human mouths). The tiny boxed heads are as pale as bleached skulls.

In a tall wooden Cabinet in Museum Vrolik, Amsterdam, rows of skulls are supported by pegs on ebony stands. Hydrocephalus, microcephalus, bathrocephalus, they are all sizes, distorted, grinning toothily but without eyes. Shelves of skulls, a presentiment of the Killing Fields. Nearby is the Curator’s ‘favourite’ specimen, a little foetus with a fuzz of pale red hair, his arms hanging gently in the liquid preserving liquid as though he is merely resting. He is a little ‘cyclops’, whose genetic recipe made for him only one small central eye. He did not live to see the light of day, nor have the good fortune to enter the Country of the Blind.


(1) 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. In other words, 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

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This glass and ivory eye in Peter the Great’s collection in St Petersburg was photographed by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, who very generously allowed the author to use the image on the cover of this First Edition