Bad Science? Crooke on Anatomy

Throughout my life, I have always loved reading. It astounds me that to lose oneself in different worlds, or to absorb potentially limitless knowledge, is possible by opening something as simple as book, and taking the time to pour over the pages within. That it is possible to inspire countless future generations, as Shakespeare did, or to read the inner most thoughts of a long forgotten king. Volunteering at Worcester Cathedral library is like stepping into the halls of our ancestors, their still preserved voices waiting patiently on the shelves, eager to tell their stories. It is as if the greatest minds of the past ten centuries have all been crammed together in one room… but without the inherent impracticalities.

The whole place exudes a sense of incredible age. Rows upon rows of musty brown leather-backed books stand upon seemingly sagging shelves, as if the density of the knowledge they contain were pressing down upon the wood. Is this knowledge, however, useful to us today? I couldn’t see a 17th century science textbook being at all relevant, so I decided to ask the librarians. Tom, the ruddy faced, curly haired trainee promptly grabbed a towering step ladder and, not looking down, ventured to the very top shelf of the very furthest corner, and handed me Helkiah Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia, a four hundred year old book on anatomy. The knowledge therein, I was soon to discover, was as dusty as the tome itself.

Crooke's Mikrokosmographia Worcester Cathedral Library

Detail from an anatomical diagram in Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

For instance, did you know that, in the throws of extreme passion, heart palpitations could become strong enough to bruise or even break the ribs? I certainly didn’t. I shall, however, endeavour never to be interested in anything, in order to avoid injuries.

But to give credit where credit is due, he was not in complete ignorance of the functions of the heart. He did, for example recognise that it is the heart that pumps the blood around the body. However, he lets himself down by saying that: ‘the heart… the source of heat, spirits, and quickening nectar, the first and only storehouse of blood.’

Crooke Worcester Cathedral Library

Crooke understood that the heart pumped the blood through the circulatory system…Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

By saying that the heart is the source of the spirits, he implies that the heart is the organ that contains the personality, and generates rational thinking. Even taking into account the lack of understanding of the time, I find it strange that he could have thought this. His argument is that the heart is situated at the centre of the body, and so is the place that the spirit would most likely occupy. However, when I think, I perceive my thoughts to be coming from somewhere just behind my eyes, and not from my chest. Maybe while dissecting so many other bodies, he ignored his own, and failed to notice this.

Worcester Cathedral Library anatomy

The human brain – not the seat of thoughts, according to Crooke. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Maybe I shouldn’t poke fun at Crooke. He did, after all, live in a time when the ancient Greeks where the authority on anatomy, and without people like him making discoveries we would not be as advanced as we are today. Then again, maybe I should, as I cannot help but find his mistakes hilarious.

Crooke gives us a unique insight into the nature of hairs. If he is to be believed, hairs grow from the body much the same as plants grow from soil, feeding off the moisture of the skin: ‘Hence it is, that wheresoever there are any kernels there are also haires… the haires to gather it [moisture] into their nourishment or for their production.’

I, for one, am looking forward to when my hairs finally start sprouting petals. Providing, of course, that it doesn’t play havoc with my hay fever. However, should I be stricken down by inevitable male pattern baldness, Crooke is ready with handy tips to prevent my precious locks from jumping ship. According to Crooke, wearing a hat, or covering the head, is the cause of said baldness, as want of ventilation can cause the hairs do die off and fall out. Thus, it should follow that fanning bald patches will help a long way to encouraging the growth of hair. If you don’t have a fan, I’d prescribe standing in a cool breeze for thirty minuets daily. Trust me, I’ve been reading a 17th century doctor.

Crooke dissection table. Worcester Cathedral Library.

Crooke’s dissection table? Some have claimed that much of his work was plagiarised – raising questions about how much dissection work he carried out. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

So, as I close Crooke’s Mikrokosmographia, I get the feeling that, while interesting from an historical point of view, the shelf is the best place for this book, rather than an operating theatre. To be nice, I’m going to say that this is because the binding is incredibly old. Keep trying, Crooke. I’m sure you’ll get there in the end.

D. Bateman


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