Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

Page 22 of 79

He also obtained the office of physician to the Cardinal of Tournon, whom he accompanied on his missions in France, Italy, and the Low Countries, of which occasions he eagerly availed himself to increase his knowledge of natural history. Returning once more to his usual place of residence he established an anatomical theatre, at which he lectured several hours daily to a numerous audience. His passion for dissection was so strong, that he opened one of his own children after death, and this circumstance has naturally enough given rise to the opinion, that he must have been a man destitute of sensibility; which, however, does not appear to have been the case. His wife having died in 1560, he soon procured another, poor and handsome like the first. While on a journey to Toulouse he was attacked by dysentery, occasioned by eating too many figs, and he died at Realmont, whither he had gone[Pg 114] to visit a patient. His death happened on the 30th July 1566, in the fifty-ninth year of his age.

He was a man of very small stature, but robust and active. At the age of twenty-five he gave up the use of wine and spirits, from an apprehension of gout; but he compensated for his abstemiousness in these articles by indulging his appetite for fruit and pastry. Although he had acquired considerable sums of money in the practice of his profession, he expended them in the gratification of his taste for building, and in various acts of generosity; so that he left very little behind him.


One of the most celebrated naturalists of the sixteenth century was Ulysses Aldrovandi, professor at Bologna, who was born in that city in 1527, and died on the 4th of May 1605. He was of a noble family, and his fortune enabled him to travel extensively, to collect materials for his books, and to employ artists in painting and engraving suitable illustrations. He carried, indeed, his liberality in this respect so far, that, having expended his whole fortune in his enthusiastic pursuit of natural history, he left nothing for the support of his old age, and is commonly believed to have died in the hospital of his native city. Cuvier, in a notice of his life in the Biographie Universelle, regards this circumstance as doubtful; imagining it improbable that the senate of Bologna, to whom he bequeathed his museum and manuscripts, and who laid out large sums after his death in completing the publication of his works, would have left him destitute during[Pg 115] his life. This, however, is mere conjecture; and there is too much reason to fear that, like many other eminent persons, he was abandoned to struggle with misfortune, and not advanced to honour and estimation until after his career was finished, when they could be of no use to him.

The works of Aldrovandi form thirteen folio volumes. Of these, four only were published by himself; namely, three on birds and one on insects. Immediately after his death, in 1606, his widow put forth a volume on the other white-blooded animals, including testacea and crabs. Cornelius Uterverius, a native of Delft, and his successor in the institute of Bologna, revised the work on fishes and whales, which appeared in 1613, as well as that on the quadrupeds with solid hoofs, published in 1616. In 1621, the History of the Quadrupeds with split Hoofs was edited by Thomas Dempster, a Scottish gentleman, who was also a professor at Bologna. The other treatises, on the viviparous and oviparous digitate quadrupeds, on serpents, monsters, and minerals, were prepared for the press by Bartholomew Ambrosinus, another of his successors, and that on trees by Ovid Montalbanus. These works underwent a second impression at Bologna, and some of them were subsequently printed at Frankfort. It is difficult to procure a uniform edition, and some of the tracts are much rarer than others.

Aldrovandi was certainly one of the most zealous naturalists of his time; but, although he added considerably to the stock of information, he can only be considered as a laborious collector of materials. Cuvier pronounces his works "an enormous compilation without taste or genius," and agrees with[Pg 116] Buffon in thinking, that were the useless parts removed, they would be reduced to a tenth of their bulk. Moreover, the plan and matter are to a great extent borrowed from Gesner; but in all ages writers on natural history have been so much addicted to the practice of borrowing, that Aldrovandi is hardly to be censured on this account.

Some portions of his museum have successfully struggled with the destructive energies of time, and are still to be seen in the collection of the Institute of Bologna. His manuscripts, of which there is an immense mass, are preserved in the public library of the same city; and the drawings from which the engravings for his work were taken were carried, at the time of the Revolution, to the Museum of Natural History at Paris.

Such were the dawnings of zoological science after the revival of learning in Europe. The authors of those times, it is manifest, looked less to nature than to the writings of Aristotle, Pliny, and their other predecessors; so that in their works we find little more than a repetition of what had been previously said. Their descriptions are rude, frequently incorrect, and in few cases characteristic. They had no idea of disposing the objects of which they treated in a manner resembling that to which we have been accustomed since the period of Ray and Linnæus. The alphabetical arrangement was followed by some, while others possessed a rude notion of the affinity of species; but although attempts were made to separate the animal creation into classic groups, yet from the days of Aristotle to those of Swammerdam, Ray, and Reaumur, we find no traces of the anatomical knowledge necessary for the accomplishment[Pg 117] of such an undertaking. We have, indeed, little reason to expect in the writings of the ancients, or in those of the succeeding naturalists, any example of a just classification; still we cannot but marvel when we find, that very few of them endeavoured to represent objects as they might have seen them with their own eyes. Whatever may be the causes of this defect, those who are extensively conversant with the publications of our own times must be aware, that the practice of copying from books, instead of having recourse to Nature herself, has not yet been relinquished; though nothing is more clear than that there can be no real progress in natural history without authenticating the observations of preceding writers by examining the objects which they have described, and by noting the particulars in which they are erroneous.


[G] Cuvier, Hist. Nat. des Poissons.

[Pg 118]


Zoologists of the Seventeenth Century.

Brief Account of the Lives and Writings of John Jonston, John Goedert, Francis Redi, and John Swammerdam—Notice respecting the principal Works of Swammerdam—His Birth and Education—He studies Medicine, but addicts himself chiefly to the Examination of Insects—Goes to France, where he forms an Acquaintance with Thevenot—Returns to Amsterdam, takes his Degree, improves the Art of making Anatomical Preparations—Publishes various Works—Destroys his Health by the Intensity of his Application—Becomes deeply impressed with religious Ideas—Adopts the Opinions of Antoinette Bourignon—Is tortured by conflicting Passions—Endeavours to dispose of his Collections—Is affected with Ague and Anasarca, and dies after protracted Suffering—His Writings published by Boerhaave—His Classification of Insects.


Free Learning Resources