Pieter Camper Biography (1722-1789)

anatomist, medical illustrator, obstetrician

From the time he was admitted to Leyden University in the Netherlands as a precocious 11-year-old, this multitalented scientist and artist found no lack of intellectual pursuits to arouse his boundless curiosity. Pieter Camper madeseveral important contributions in the fields of obstetrics, ophthalmology,orthopedics, comparative anatomy, veterinary medicine, anthropology, and medical illustration.

Pieter Camper was born in the city of Leyden in the Netherlands in 1722. Someof his intellectual influence may have come from his father, a cleric, and his grandfather, a physician. He spent a dozen years there at Leyden University, receiving two doctorates at age 24, one in philosophy and the other in medicine. Camper spent most of his working life as a professor at three Dutch universities: Franeker (in the Dutch province of Friesland), Amsterdam, and Groningen.

Concerned that obstetrical training of the day was inadequate, Camper traveled to England to study midwifery. He later wrote a five-volume book about thesubject. He pioneered the use of the symphyseotomy, which is the cutting intothe bone at the front of the pelvis to widen the birth passage, in place ofcesarean sections. Although he did not personally perform this procedure on human patients, he demonstrated its effectiveness in experiments on slaughtered pigs and then on a live animal. He was also an early advocate of allowing the third stage of labor (delivery of the placenta, or afterbirth) to take place naturally whenever possible. Despite his expertise, Camper ironically claimed that obstetrics was merely a hobby. He said that he only accepted paymenton one occasion for obstetrical services, regardless of the wealth of the patient.

While in England, he had also undertaken instruction in art at the Painters'Academy in London. He became well known as a medical illustrator, writing a two-volume work on medical illustration, and using a variety of forms including engraving, painting, and sculpture. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he ignored the laws of perspective and made his anatomical depictions architecturally correct using a moving point of view.

Studying the works of earlier painters and manuscript illustrators, he becameinterested in facial angles and the shapes of skulls. Using these characteristics to compare different ethnic groups, he became a founder of the social science of anthropology.

Camper was a pioneer of comparative anatomy, carefully dissecting animals including the elephant, rhinoceros, and orangutan. He explored the croaking of frogs, air chambers in the bones of birds, and hearing in fish. This work in animal anatomy led to a corresponding interest in veterinary medicine. Duringan outbreak of cattle pest in 1769, Camper performed 100 autopsies and promoted inoculation of animals against the disease. In human anatomy, he discovered the processus vaginalis peritonaei, a factor in abdominal hernia.

Ophthalmology was an early interest of Camper's. At Leyden University, his doctoral dissertations in both philosophy and medicine dealt with the eyes. Hewas particularly interested in cataracts, experimenting with cataract surgeryand carrying out basic research aimed at pinpointing the cause. He also accurately described how the eye focuses, allowing it to perceive objects at different distances.

In the area of orthopedics, Camper wrote about congenital dislocation of thehip, as well as the structures of the knee and elbow. He also wrote and published an important paper about human locomotion, describing the anatomy of thefoot and the best forms of footwear.

In non-medical disciplines, Camper's interests extended to paleontology (acquiring a large collection of fossils), civil engineering (proposing improvements to the design of flood dikes), agronomy (investigating the best methods ofclearing land and preparing it for agriculture), botany (combing the countryside, in the company of plant experts, looking for herbs), astronomy (visiting William Herschel and his huge telescope), politics (serving as representative to the Assembly of the General States in The Hague), and technology (studying industrial processes in copper furnaces and glass ovens, personally building many of his tools and instruments).

After a career remarkable for its numerous accomplishments, Camper died in 1789.

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