The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Ruysch’s Thesaurus Anatomicus

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Ruysch’s Thesaurus Anatomicus


Illustration, Medical
Book Illustration


Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) is perhaps the most inventive and original of all the early anatomical artists, creating dream-like amalgamations of botanical, animal, and human anatomical specimens, pre-dating the popularity of surrealism by more than two centuries. Three fetal skeletons seem to frolic and dance amid a gall bladder coral with vascular trees; a child’s severed arm grasps a hatching sea turtle egg floating in a jar topped with sea plants; human bones and elephant teeth juxtaposed together appear as an alien landscape; a human fetus with a grossly enlarged head lovingly grasps a portion of its own placenta; these are some of the images that Ruysch conjures in his magnificent Thesaurus anatomicus primus [-decimus] : cum figuris aeneis.

These detailed etchings are not merely figments of Ruysch’s imagination, but are still lifes illustrated from careful preparations of his invention. By heating a white wax and injecting it into the circulatory system of his specimens, he was able to make them malleable and poseable. Additionally, with the help of his son he developed the use of “liquor balsamicus,” a clear liquid that would act like embalming fluid to preserve the color and elasticity of the specimen. Though his preparations, and the museum that housed them, were immensely popular at the time as a spectacle or oddity, Ruysch was committed to the growth of medical knowledge, making the invisible visible in a way that was impossible before his contributions.

Thesaurus Anatomicus was originally published in Amsterdam between 1701 and 1716 consisting of plates engraved mostly by Cornelius Huyberts, who engraved plates for artist Girard de Lairesse the illustrator of Bidloo’s anatomy. The copy held in the Historical Medical Library of the College dates from 1703-1721.


Ruysch, Frederik, 1638-1731



Digitized by the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia






Af 37


18th Century

Original Format

Bound monograph


Ruysch, Frederik, 1638-1731, “Ruysch’s Thesaurus Anatomicus,” The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library, accessed July 7, 2022,