Indiana University Bloomington

Anatomia Animata: Anatomy and Medicine in William Harvey's Century


In the seventeenth century, the study of insects grew dramatically, especially among those who made use of the microscope. The study of insects had a strong, if complex, relationship with the study of medicine. In his De Motu Cordis, Harvey described the pulsating heart of wasps and hornets visible through their skins, but there were many aspects to studying insects only accessible through actual dissection of their miniscule bodies.

Ancient sources had assigned only rudimentary internal organs to insects, but seventeenth–century scholars pointed to the need for an insect to have all the moving parts necessary to a living creature. Also, the process of reproduction in insects was a particularly vexing problem, and dissection was needed to settle the controversial question of spontaneous generation.

In the 1660s, Jan Swammerdam identified eggs in the queen bee (formally considered the king) and identified the bee's sexual organs. While Swammerdam's book (Historiam Insectorum Generalis) was in the process of printing, he received a copy of Marcello Malpighi's De Bombyce, with extensive anatomical information about the silkworm in both its moth and caterpillar stages. Swammerdam was inspired –and somewhat threatened – by the work and immediately began his own dissections, learning the process of dealing with these tiny subjects as he went and eventually applying his newfound skill to a wide variety of other insects.

Later in the century, Anton van Leeuwenhoek began a campaign against spontaneous generation, a philosophically charged topic of the time, by making his own careful dissections of insects including the grain weevil, grain moth, flea, louse, aphid, and various flies. It is worth noting that these three researchers, and many others studying a variety of subjects, communicated through the Royal Society, which received and distributed their findings and often published their books.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek. Arcana Naturae Detecta ab Antonio Van Leeuwenhoek. Delft: Apud Henricum a Krooneveld, 1695.

After his early experiments with lenses, Anton van Leeuwenhoek began to use the microscope to study minute structures and forms of life. While famous for his discovery of red corpuscles in the blood and the minute structure of spermatozoa, he also undertook extensive investigations into plant reproduction. The third edition of this work is displayed in the section devoted to microscopy, while the first edition is displayed in the one devoted to insects.

Jan Swammerdam. Histoire generale des insects. Ou l'on expose clairement la maniere lente & presqu'insensible de l'accroissement de leurs members, & ou l'on decouvre evidemment l'erreur ou l'on tombe d'ordinaire au sujet de leur prétendué transformation. Utrecht: Chez Jean Ribbius, 1685.

One of the major treatises of its time on insects. Swammerdam believed that contemporary arguments about insect reproduction and anatomy were false, and he devoted a wide variety of investigations to refute these ideas. The original Dutch edition was published in 1669. This copy, the first French edition, was owned in the twentieth century by famous Indiana University sex researcher (and originally, Professor of Zoology), Alfred Kinsey, whose name is inscribed inside the cover.

Marcello Malpighi. Dissertatio Epistolica de Bombyce ... London: Apud Joannem Martyn & Jacobum Allestry, 1669.

Malpighi's work on the silkworm — the first book on a single insect — was a masterpiece of painstaking work with a microscope. Published by the Royal Society, the text contains observations of the larval, pupal, and adult stages of the silkworm as well as remarks upon its organs. The book greatly influenced Jan Swammerdam, who undertook his own microscopic studies of the silkworm.

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