A Former ‘Madhouse’: The Museum Boerhaave

Earlier this month, our Friends’ Secretary paid a short visit to Holland to attend biennial conference of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health, on the topic ‘Body and Mind’. The weekend included a fascinating visit and guided tour of the Museum Boerhaave (the Dutch National Museum for the History of Science and Medicine) in Leiden. The building in which the museum is housed has a long and complicated history: built as a nunnery in the early 15th century, shortly before 1600 it became a ‘plague hospital and madhouse’ (not the most obvious combination from a modern viewpoint!). Still, as the museum’s collection illustrates, many connections have been made historically between physical and mental illness. During the seventeenth century, standard medical practices were based on humoral theory, in which mental illness (often regarded as due to an excess of black bile in the body) was generally treated by the same techniques as diseases like plague: for example bloodletting, purging and vomiting. The Boerhaave, like other medical collections, has numerous instruments for such practices.

Brugmans Skull

Anatomy is also well-represented in the collection, and a late eighteenth century collection of skulls illustrates the way in which doctors of the time tried to learn about the mind by studying the physical body. One cabinet contains a collection of skulls prepared by Sebald Justinus Brugmans (1763 – 1819), Professor of Medicine at Leiden from 1795 (further indicating the fluid nature of boundaries in the period, Brugmans had previously been a Professor of Physics and Mathematics, and also of Botany). Brugmans’ teaching specimens include animals preserved in alcohol, used for comparative anatomy, as well as human and animal skulls. The image above shows one skull listed by Brugmans as “the skull of a maniac.” During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was thought by many that examining the skull could inform the physician about the brain and mental state of the individual. This idea informed anatomist Franz Joseph Gall’s system of phrenology, developed in 1796 and popular well into the nineteenth century. The Bethlem collection contains several phrenology heads (one of which is pictured below), designed to show the “organs” of the brain, which were supposed to correspond directly to human faculties such as capacity for language, affection or pride.

The Museum Boerhaave is currently under threat of closure, with a major fundraising campaign to raise 700,000 Euros by the end of 2011 underway. To find out more, visit Save Museum Boerhaave. As previously mentioned on this blog, the exhibition ‘The Weighty Body (previously at the Museum Dr Guislain), which includes Elise Warriner’s The Anger Within from the Bethlem Art Collection, will open at the Boerhaave in 2012.

Phrenology Head

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1 Response to “A Former ‘Madhouse’: The Museum Boerhaave”


  1. 1 Dr Nicholas Cambridge September 15, 2011 at 11:48 am

    In my study at home I have a large phrenology bust entitled ‘Phrenology by L.N. Fowler’ which together with busts of Hippocrates and William Harvey keep a watchful eye on me as I read and work on my computer.
    Hermann Boerhaave (1638-1748) introduced bedside teaching and was regarded as the most important medical educator of his time. When Boerhaave died Edward Cave, Editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, asked Dr Samuel Johnson to write a biographical piece about this famous physician.


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