What we can learn from the collection of nineteenth century samples

What we can learn from the collection of nineteenth century samples

It was July 19, 1819, near sunset. Professor Leiden worked all day in Hortus and the Natural History Cabinet. But now that it’s over, he suddenly has chest pains and stomach cramps. Letting go seems to help, but soon the stomach cramps return, becoming more and more intense. Gastroenteritis, is the diagnosis, followed by gangrene. A cure is not possible, then it goes quickly, because on the 23rd of July, after an illness of four days, Sebald Justinus Brugmans died. His most important scientific legacy: a collection of more than four thousand anatomical specimens.

The kit mainly consisted of animal preparations, but it also contained some human materials. The skulls, for example, are mostly from non-Dutch bodies. He collected them on the battlefields, which he visited regularly because he had been chief of the military medical service for 20 years. His subordinates on duty also sent him skulls; For example, he obtained bones and fossils from his foreign colleagues (including the famous French researcher Georges Cuvier). Some of the animal preparations may have originated from the animals kept at Leiden Hortus.

Another standard

Brugmans has never published anything about any preparation in his collection. This is unimaginable in today’s university, of course; Collect a lot of data, then not make a single post out of it. But this was possible in Brugman’s time. At that time, different standards were applied in the university. For many professors, teaching took precedence over research, and Brugmans’ group aimed primarily at illustrating his lectures.

In 1817 Brugmans sold his collection to the University of Leiden for 30,000 guilders – roughly the equivalent of €200,000 today. When Brugmans died in 1819, his widow negotiated a further 4,000 guilders for the preparations made by Brugmans after 1817, and the vaults in which the preparations were kept.

Once owned by the university, the collection was used for teaching, but also for research. Brugmans himself may never have used his preparations as a basis for publications, but scholars after him have. I mention some examples. Anatomy professor Hidde Halbertsma pulls out pieces of teeth collected by the Brugmans in order to microscopically investigate dental abnormalities. By examining the internal organs of Brugmans perch, Halbertsma himself was able to establish that hermaphroditism also occurs in perch. And doctoral candidate Jan Bogstra published a skull that Brugmans had cut in half to learn more about cranial deformities, which his supervisor Johannes van den Bogaard later published an article about.

Immediately fixed position

Back in the year 2023, a time when it’s hard to imagine a scientist who’s just earned his PhD immediately getting a permanent position, during which time he’ll spend over thirty years working on a collection that’s primarily an educational project.

Next week is the sixth round of negotiations for the university’s collective labor agreement. An important point for discussion: permanent contracts for teachers doing structural work. Universities have been resisting this for years, because they only want permanent contracts for scientists who, in addition to teaching, also do research. Otherwise, the “interconnectedness of education and research” is at risk.

I never understood that. If the interdependence of research and teaching is endangered by a permanent staff member with a full teaching appointment, then also by the constant reassignment of temporary staff with full teaching appointments, it seems to me.

If you want all of your scientists to combine teaching and research, give these teachers time to research – they are usually more than happy to do so. And if you don’t have the money for that, just give them a permanent teaching position anyway. Out of decency, and because you’re considering 4,000 Brugmans aptitudes. Because they show us: Peace and space for scientists who focus exclusively or primarily on education will benefit research sooner or later.

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