Ephemeri Vita. Of afbeeldingh van 's menschen leven, Vertoont in de Wonderbaarlijcke en nooyt gehoorde Historie van het vliegent ende een-dagh-levent Haft of Oever-aas. Een dierken, ten aansien van sijn naam, over al in Neerlandt bekent...

Amsterdam: Abraham Wolfgang, 1675.

First edition, very rare and a fine copy, of Swammerdam’s treatise on the life-cycle and anatomy of the mayfly, containing his first published descriptions and illustrations of the internal anatomy of an insect. “His Ephemeri Vita contains some very remarkable pieces of minute anatomy. The figures, drawn by himself, are the best early representations of the dissection of an insect” (Hagströmer Library, description of 1681 English translation). “In his last work, on the may-fly, Swammerdam gave the first complete account of metamorphosis … much in his descriptions was not superseded before the nineteenth century … on a visit to Paris he repeated before a meeting at Thévenot’s house his dissection of the may-fly, and an offer was made to tempt him to Florence” (Hall, From Galileo to Newton, pp. 168-9). In 1669 Swammerdam had published his Historia insectorum generalis, which contained many beautiful illustrations of insects, but did not attempt to describe their minute anatomy. “A comparison of his investigations contained in Historia Insectorum Generalis (1669) and those that appeared in his next major published work, on the mayfly (Ephemeri Vita, 1675), shows that a series of fundamental changes had taken place in Swammerdam’s science. Most importantly, he began to study the internal structures of insects using microscopy, dissection, and careful experimentation. Also, like Malpighi, he presented his vision to the world via some stunning drawings, in which the component anatomical parts are treated as separate, isolated, and often utterly strange objects, without reference to size or function … Swammerdam was carrying out relatively crude dissections of large insects in the second half of the 1660s … However, prior to 1669 he never put the two skills together” (Cobb, p. 124). No copy listed on ABPC/RBH.

“Despite a scientific career that lasted only a dozen years, Swammerdam (1637-80) was one of the outstanding comparative anatomists of the seventeenth century. His most remarkable work was in the field of insect anatomy, which he undertook in order to disprove still-current Aristotelian notions (which he opposed upon religious grounds) that insects lack internal anatomy, develop by metamorphosis (sudden and complete transformation) and arise from spontaneous generation. By refining his techniques of micro-dissection and injection to the point where he could use them on the smallest and most delicate anatomical parts, Swammerdam was able to illustrate for the first time the complex internal structures of insects, including their reproductive organs; and to demonstrate the gradual development of an insect’s adult form throughout all its larval stages. These observations are ‘indubitably the foundation of our modern knowledge of the structure, metamorphosis and classification of insects’ (Cole, p. 285)” (Norman).

“Passing over the first work on insects (1669), which deals only with external morphology and metamorphosis, … we come to the more relevant monograph on the may-fly, first published in Dutch in 1675 … The biology of the Ephemeri Vita … shows us Swammerdam at his best. He started work on the may-fly as early as 1667, and mentions dissecting the nymphs in 1670, and making notes on the metamorphosis in 1671 … the anatomy of the small nymph is described from beautiful dissections, and in this respect Swammerdam is clearly superior to Malpighi … In addition to the anatomy of the species the astonishing life-cycle, in which a momentary adult existence closes, with the savage ruthlessness of Nature, a prolonged and active larval life, is laid bare for the first time” (Cole, pp. 278-9).

“Swammerdam was one among the many who marveled over imaginings of minute anatomies, but when he wrote the Historia he still emphasized not the prospect but the apparent hopelessness of ever actually observing one. The disposition of the limbs, muscles, veins, and nerves in the anatomy of the larger animals was astonishing enough, he wrote, but to find the same in animals whose whole bodies were smaller than the point of one’s knife was stupefying. In fact, Swammerdam had yet to face so small an anatomy and really did not expect to. Since we lack the eye and the hand for even the slightest dissection of these parts, he continued more realistically, that inner form will remain beyond our reach.

“Although the interest in comparative anatomy had prompted Swammerdam to turn to insect dissections, those efforts had as yet produced no significant initiatives with the microscope and showed little prospect of doing so. Moreover, … there is little in the Historia to suggest that Swammerdam as yet even contemplated a general, systematic program of insect dissection with or without the aid of a lens …

“The Historia insectorum generalis was in press when Swammerdam in 1669 received a copy of Malpighi’s Dissertatio epistolica de bombyce, published that same year by the Royal Society. In that remarkable work, Malpighi joined a study of the life history of the silkworm to an account and illustration of the anatomy of both the moth and the caterpillar. Swammerdam was deeply impressed. He was also driven to repeat and, if possible, surpass Malpighi’s dissections.

“The attempt to duplicate those dissections proved a profoundly educational experience for Swammerdam. Malpighi himself later stressed the great difficulty and wearisomeness of the undertaking, for it was completely new, he wrote, and the anatomical parts so small, fragile, and intertwined as to demand their own special method of dissection; it was so exhausting that after several months his eyes became inflamed and he succumbed to fevers. Swammerdam likewise described it as the most trying kind of dissection. Indeed, at first it seemed hopeless, he confessed, for he was ignorant of Malpighi’s method; but in time and through chance he discovered a method of his own.

“The silkworm was only the beginning, however, and as Swammerdam tried his newly acquired techniques on other insects his skills developed rapidly. He dissected the nymph of the mayfly in 1670 with great finesse … He would later stress the “ingenious inventions” – presumably new techniques – he had to devise and the variety of aids to which he was forced to turn, among them being necessarily now the microscope (of which Malpighi, however, had made little mention in his own De Bombyce). Swammerdam now dissected directly below a lens, and even the lancets and styluses he used – though a fine pair of scissors was his key instrument – were so small that he sharpened them under the lens as well. The more delicate and difficult parts of an insect’s anatomy he removed from the body and placed on a small, sometimes coloured, piece of glass “as thin as can be blown at the lamp.” The bit of insect anatomy having dried on the fragment of glass, it was pasted to a bit of cork and the cork stuck on a needle’s point, there to be observed more closely with the microscope” (Ruestow, The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery, pp. 111-113).

“Swammerdam conceived the study of nature as an exploration and confirmation of God's glory, and thus as a kind of divine worship. However, his investigations were also a time-consuming occupation, which prevented the giving of due attention to traditional forms of worship. Over the years Swammerdam came to feel that, by indulging in scientific research, he was neglecting his vital duties as a Christian. In the preface to Ephemeri Vita, dated 12 July 1675, he wrote,

“I have now spent enough time and labour in the investigation of Nature and have followed my own depraved will and pleasure therein. Wherefore I now intend to follow solely God’s will, to surrender my will to Him, and withdraw all my thoughts from the multiple things so as to offer them to heavenly reflections only.”

“Swammerdam was obviously trapped in a crisis, struggling with conflicting desires. In the end this resulted in a decision to renounce scientific research and to join the religious community of Antoinette Bourignon. This decision was supported by his feeling that his investigations “have already served me as a ladder to climb up to Him, and one does no longer need the means once the goal has been reached. For, if one continues to wish to use the means, they become nothing but impediments.”

“However, from the circumstances that delayed his departure to Bourignon’s side it is clear that Swammerdam’s mind was still inclined to science. He first saw his treatise on the mayfly, entitled Ephemeri Vita, through the press. This book is a perfect reflection of his state of mind at the time. It is a mixture of a superb study of the life and anatomy of the mayfly, of lamentations on the futility of human life, of prayers and of digressions into theological questions” (Fournier, p. 4).

Swammerdam stated that his principal object in laying his book before the public was “to give us wretched mortals a lively image of the shortness of human life, and thereby induce us, by frequent admonitions, to aspire to a better state of being”. The letter in which Bourignon gives permission to publish is printed in the book: it begins as follows:

“I have received your letter of the 4th of this year, in which letter you ask my advice again on the publication of the treatise on a small animal, which lives only one day and has to suffer much during this time. Which appears to me to be the image of a human, who lives no longer than a day, if compared to eternity. During this time he has however to suffer various kinds of miseries so that a thousand animals are not as miserable as a human, subjected to the elements, plagued by all kinds of animals which bite or kill. And if this publication could contribute to the education of the salvation of our fellow men, I would be of the opinion that you should publish it, as the last of your brilliant works, so that you can devote yourself to more serious pursuits, pursuits which relate to eternity, in the future.”

“Before he left Amsterdam Swammerdam also went through the notes of his researches and destroyed some of these, among them his notes on the anatomy of the silkworm. However, most of his notes were still extant when he resumed his scientific activities about a year later, and he took care that his drawings of the silkworm’s interior parts were sent to Malpighi, so that the results of his work would not be lost.

“During his stay in Bourignon’s community the conflict between science and religion was to some extent resolved in Swammerdam’s mind. Upon his return to Amsterdam, he devoted all his time to editing his notes, which he elaborated and completed and which were supplemented with a series of newly initiated investigations” (Fournier, pp. 4-5).

After two years of intense effort and new research, Swammerdam’s manuscripts, written in Dutch, were ready for the press, but the Latin translation he considered necessary had yet to be made. He entrusted the manuscripts to a Leiden translator, but soon afterwards he contracted a fever and died on 17 February 1680. There the matter rested for almost half a century, until in 1727 the great Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) acquired the manuscripts and eventually published them in two large volumes as Bybel der Natuure (1737-8). The anatomical section of the present work is included in the Bybel.

The Ephemeri vita was translated into English in 1681 under the title Ephemeri vita: or the Natural History and Anatomy of the Ephemeron, A Fly that Lives but Five Hours, and edited by Edward Tyson, famous for his work on “the missing link”, entitled Orang-Outang, sive homo Sylvestris: or the Anatomy of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape and a man (1699). This translation is also rare (three copies listed on ABPC/RBH).

Cobb, ‘Malpighi, Swammerdam and the Colourful Silkworm: Replication and Visual Representation in Early Modern Science,’ Annals of Science 59 (2002), 111-147; Cole, A History of Comparative Anatomy, 278-285; Fournier, ‘The Book of Nature: Jan Swammerdam’s Microscopical Investigations,’ Tractrix 2 (1990), 1-24; Norman 2036 (for the English translation of 1681, this edition not in Norman); Singer, Short History of Biology, 160-2; Waller 11967.

8vo (156 x 97 mm), pp. [xxxii], 422, [8], with eight engraved plates (two folding). Contemporary vellum. A very fine and clean copy.

Item #5079

Price: $6,500.00

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