Albinus Anatomical Prints Donation

By Michael North

First Edition Albinus Anatomical Prints Come to the National Library of Medicine

In April, 2013, Gloria and Paul Spiekermann of Westport, Connecticut generously donated four important anatomical prints by artist Jan Wandelaar and anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus to the National Library of Medicine. The prints were produced in Leiden, Netherlands between 1740 and 1742 and published in 1747 along with 36 other detailed anatomical prints in Albinus’s monumental atlas, Tabulae Sceleti et Musculorum Corporis Humani (Tables of the Skeleton and Muscles of the Human Body). All of the plates are missing from NLM’s copy of the first Leiden edition of 1747, so this donation fills a significant gap in the collection.

portrait of Bernhard Siegfried Albinus in a wig

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus
National Library of Medicine # B01131

Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770), a professor of anatomy at Leiden in the Netherlands, intended to create the most accurate, elegant, and comprehensive atlas of human anatomy of his time, all based on his own direct observations during dissections.  He began the project in 1725 and started producing a few prints a year beginning in 1737 focusing on the bones, then the muscles, and published the entire set together largely at his own expense in 1747 under the title, Tabulae Sceleti et Musculorum Corporis Humani.  The monumental volume was an impressive book at nearly three feet tall and two feet wide: NLM’s copy of the text takes two people to carry and reshelve, even though it lacks the plates.  Albinus never completed the project, which was to include all the systems of the body, but the initial volume on the bones and muscles had a far-reaching impact on the world of anatomy as the designs for the plates were reprinted in numerous editions and copied by later anatomists and artists for more than a century.

The artist and engraver with whom Albinus did nearly all of his work was Jan Wandelaar (1690-1759).  In an attempt to increase the scientific accuracy of anatomical illustration, Albinus and Wandelaar devised a new technique of placing nets with square webbing at specified intervals between the artist and the anatomical specimen and copying the images using the grid patterns. Tabulae was highly criticized by such engravers as Petrus Camper, especially for the whimsical backgrounds added to many of the pieces by Wandelaar, but Albinus staunchly defended Wandelaar and his work.  The backgrounds were meant not only to fill up blank space behind the figures, but to add perspective and depth to the figures themselves.

The plates were newly engraved for an edition of the atlas printed in London in 1749, and NLM has scanned 16 plates from this 1749 London edition for its digital project, “Historical Anatomies on the Web.” 

The National Library of Medicine is fortunate to receive this generous donation, which we will preserve and make available to scholars, artists, and the public for many generations to come.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.