Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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In 1672, he published his Miraculum Naturæ, seu Uteri Muliebris Fabrica. He soon afterwards entered upon an extensive examination of fishes, having reference chiefly to the pancreas. About this time he began to be impressed with religious ideas; becoming sensible of the vanity of human pursuits, as well as of the sinfulness of that inordinate ambition which impels men to aim at the highest place in the estimation of their fellows. He accordingly resolved to eradicate that base passion from his breast. In this state of mind he imbibed the mystical notions of the celebrated Antoinette Bourignon.

This lady, who was a native of Lisle in Flanders, had become at an early age impressed with the idea that pure Christianity was in a state of decay, and that she was called to revive it. She became governess of the hospital of her native city, and took the order and habit of St Augustin; but owing to the disturbances caused by her violent temper and pretensions to inspiration, the magistrates were obliged to expel her from her office, when she retired to Ghent. The fortune which she inherited from her parents, and that bequeathed to her by her convert De Cordt, enabled her to publish several works of[Pg 129] her own composition, and rendered her, notwithstanding the deformity of her person, the object of much hypocritical admiration. Such was her extreme parsimony, and so inconsistent was her conduct with her professions, that she declared she would rather throw her wealth into the sea than bestow the smallest sum on the poor, or on "beastly persons who had no souls to be saved."

She was at that time in Holstein; and Swammerdam wrote to a friend of his who accompanied her, to obtain permission to consult her in writing respecting his doubts. The result of their correspondence was a resolution on his part no longer to addict himself exclusively to pursuits which had reference to this world only, but to endeavour to make his peace with God. He did not, however, entirely relinquish his anatomical studies, but on the contrary engaged with astonishing ardour in the examination of the structure of bees, which he finished on the last day of September 1674. "He had laboured so assiduously at this work," says Boerhaave, "as to destroy his constitution; nor did he ever recover even a shadow of his former strength. The labour, in fact, was beyond the power of ordinary men: all day he was occupied in examining subjects, and at night described and delineated what he had seen by day. At six in the morning, in summer, he began to receive sufficient light from the sun to enable him to trace the objects of his examination. He continued dissecting till twelve, with his hat removed lest it should impede the light, and in the full blaze of the sun, the heat of which caused his head to be constantly covered with a profuse perspiration. His eyes being continually employed in this strong[Pg 130] light, the effect of which was increased by the use of the microscope, they were so affected by it, that after mid-day he could no longer trace the minute bodies which he examined, although he had then as bright a light as in the forenoon." A month of this excessive labour was necessary to examine and depict the intestines of bees alone; and the investigation of their entire structure cost him much additional labour; and all this was done, with a body debilitated by disease, and a mind agitated by conflicting passions, amid sighs and tears. At one time the bent of his disposition impelled him to investigate the wonderful works of Omnipotence; at another a voice within told him that he ought to set his affections on God alone. After finishing his examination of the structure of bees, he was so affected with remorse, that he gave the manuscript and drawings to a friend, careless what might happen to them. At the same time, however, he wrote two letters to Boccone, on the nature of corals.

These occupations being ended, he was more powerfully impressed than ever with the vanity of human pursuits, and after this period he never engaged in his customary investigations. He acknowledged that hitherto ambition alone had incited him to undergo so many labours, but now resolved to devote the remainder of his life to the cultivation of Christian piety. Being encouraged in this resolution by the approbation of Antoinette Bourignon, he firmly adhered to it; and estimating the annual sum necessary for his subsistence at 400 Dutch florins, he endeavoured to dispose of his collections, which formed the only treasures that he possessed. For this purpose, he applied to Thevenot, who, however, was[Pg 131] unable to find a purchaser in France. He then had recourse to another friend, Nicolas Steno, who had abjured the Protestant faith and was living at Florence, and whom he requested to represent the matter to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in case he might feel disposed to purchase them. This person advised him to follow his example, relinquish his creed, embrace the Catholic faith, and proceed to Florence, promising that he should induce the duke to accept the offer. Swammerdam replied indignantly, that he would not sell his soul for money.

Being without any fixed occupation, he devoted his leisure to arranging and cleaning the contents of his museum, and writing out a catalogue of them. They consisted of anatomical preparations and insects, of the latter of which there were nearly three thousand distinct species. These were all described and arranged into classes, and the entire structure of many of them had been demonstrated by the most minute dissection. He then published his Treatise on the Ephemeris, which he had commenced when in France, and which is considered as one of the most remarkable productions of any age. He did not, however, venture upon this step without consulting Bourignon. These arrangements completed, he now determined in earnest to lead a holy life, and being desirous of a personal consultation with his directress, he went to Holstein, where he remained with her some time. On returning to Amsterdam, he again endeavoured to dispose of his museum, but without success; and his sister, who had hitherto presided over the domestic establishment, happening at this time to be married, his father resolved upon[Pg 132] living with his son-in-law, so that he was obliged to look out for another residence. On this occasion his allowance was limited to 200 florins, and as he could not find any one to purchase his collection he was reduced to great perplexity. However, a thought struck him that he might apply to an old friend, who had formerly treated him with great kindness; but in this he also failed.

In the following year, his father died, leaving him heir to his property, which was sufficient for his support; but he became involved in disputes with his sister, which, together with his assiduous endeavours to discharge his religious duties, so agitated his mind, that he was again seized with a severe ague. For three entire months he was confined to his bed, and even when the accessions of the fever had become more gentle and less frequent, he still persisted in remaining in the house. In vain did his friends, Sladus, Ruysch, Schrader, Hotton, and Guenellon, urge upon him the propriety of adopting means for improving his health. He would not yield to their proposals; and, when they still persisted, at length maintained an obstinate silence.

Finding all his endeavours to sell his collection fruitless, he determined to expose it to public auction; but before the period arrived, his disease was much aggravated by the various agitations to which his mind was now habitually subject. The fever proved again regular and continuous, the countenance was emaciated, the eyes were sunk, the feet, the legs, and at length the whole body, dropsical. His friends dared not speak to him respecting his former studies, for he detested all allusion to them, and wished to withdraw his mind entirely from earthly concerns.[Pg 133] At length, on the 25th January 1670, when he perceived his end approaching, he wrote his will, leaving to Thevenot all his original manuscripts on the history of bees, butterflies, and anatomy, with 52 plates; all of which were at that time in the house of Herman Wigendorp in Leyden, to whom they had been delivered to be translated into Latin. He bequeathed his property to Margaret Volckers, wife of Daniel de Hoest, appointing her and Christopher Wyland his executors. The remainder of his time he spent in devotion, and died on the 17th February.

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