Historia insectorum generalis; ofte, algemeene verhandeling der bloedeloose dierkens.

Utrecht: Merinardus van Dreunen, 1669.

First edition, an exceptional copy with all plates in fine contemporary hand coloring, of Swammerdam’s important entomological work in which he “sketched the general outlines of an entirely new theory of the generation of all insects. He vehemently attacked axioms that were three centuries old: (1) insects lack internal anatomy; (2) they originate by spontaneous generation; (3) they then develop by metamorphosis. Swammerdam self-confidently declared that he, ‘by means of experience’ (‘door middel van de ondervindingen’), had solved the mystery that for two thousand years had puzzled the most brilliant minds. Swammerdam scorned almost every predecessor who he believed had been more preoccupied with reading books or with ‘vain speculations’ than with observing the processes of nature. Aristotle, Pliny, Aldrovandi, Moffet and other contemporary authors were all attacked in a most aggressive manner as not seeking truth and thereby not serving God, the almighty creator” (The Early Enlightenment in the Dutch Republic, 1650-1750, p. 94).

“In 1669 Swammerdam set out to disprove the idea of metamorphosis in his work Historia Insectorum Generalis. Swammerdam proposed that all insect development falls into four categories. The first group includes insects that hatch from eggs in their adult form, undergoing no further change except growth. The remaining three groups include animals that hatch from eggs before having reached the adult stage. However, in all of the categories, Swammerdam argued that all organisms come from the egg of a female of the same species. While Swammerdam used insects for a large portion of this research, he demonstrated similar development patterns in frogs to show the parallel in higher organisms” (Embryo Project Encyclopedia). “His first book, Historia insectorum generalis (A General History of Insects, 1669, which, despite its title, is in fact only a prelude to such a history), contains a variety of illustrations of insects and metamorphoses, [including] two Daphnia; mosquito larvae; an adult mosquito; the various pupal and larval stages of a louse; a dragonfly; and a butterfly. Swammerdam shades portions of his drawings on the metamorphosis plates so that the insects stand out dramatically on the printed page. On the mosquito plate, the two natural-size insects at the upper left, contrasted with the greatly enlarged main image. “Whereas [Robert Hooke] famously had represented the alien micro-world with no visual clues of the absolute size and context of the objects portrayed, Swammerdam employed a technique in which each creature was represented both life-size, and magnified. The microscope was only used occasionally. Graphically, he showed the uniformity of nature, pointing at similarities between the development of an insect, frog and carnation” (http://www.mv.crassh.cam.ac.uk/tag/swammerdam/index.html). “Swammerdam also did detailed studies of a mayfly, and of bees, and while the mayfly treatise was published, the notes on bees did not see the light of print in his lifetime, because poor Swammerdam, like Blaise Pascal before him, was tormented by religious doubts. In his early work, he took great joy in believing that he was revealing the glory and providence of God in his anatomical work, but by the early 1670s, he became convinced that he was pursing his studies, not for God, but for himself, which made him the worst of sinners, causing him no end of pain, and leading him to eventually give up his scientific work. Fortunately, for us, he left his manuscripts in good order, with instructions for their publication, and his Bybel der Nature, in two large volumes with atlas, appeared in 1737-8” (Linda Hall). 

Provenance: bookplate of Lin Buijnsters-Smets (1937-2021) to front paste-down.

“Despite a scientific career that lasted only a dozen years, Swammerdam 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).

Swammerdam (1637-80) matriculated in medicine at the University of Leiden on 11 October 1661. His collection of insects impressed his fellow students, including Regnier de Graaf, Frederik Ruysch, and Niels Stensen (Steno). From about September 1664, Swammerdam lived in Paris as the guest of Melchisédech Thévenot. He was an active member, as was his friend Steno, of Thévenot’s scientific academy, an informal club that met to watch experiments and dispute over Cartesian ideas. Returning to Amsterdam about September 1665, Swammerdam joined a group of physicians calling themselves the Private College of Amsterdam, which included Gerhard Blaes (Blasius) and Matthew Slade. The group met irregularly until 1672 and published a description of their dissections. In the winter of 1666–7, Swammerdam was again in Leiden, where he dissected insects and collaborated with van Horne on the anatomy of the uterus.

“Swammerdam pursued a lifelong inquiry into the nature of lower animals. A visitor of 1662 noted that Swammerdam owned a colored copy of Mouffet’s entomology. He was actively collecting, observing, and dissecting insects in Saumur, in and around Paris, in Leiden, and to the end of his days in the countryside around Amsterdam. All he managed to publish was the Historia insectorum generalis, Part I, and a monograph on the mayfly, which, in the period of his religious crisis, became the occasion for an extended hymn to the Creator. But he left explicit instructions in his will for the publication of the rest of his entomological studies, and Boerhaave was probably accurately carrying out Swammerdam’s intentions when he integrated the text of the Historia (slightly revised) with the unpublished manuscripts, using it as a framework that further researches filled in.

“Swammerdam’s thesis about insects was fundamentally new and significant. For his contemporaries, as for Aristotle, there existed three good arguments that not only placed the insects far from higher animals, but even tended to remove them from the realm of subjects open to scientific study. These arguments were: insects lack internal anatomy; they originate by spontaneous generation; and they develop by metamorphosis. Swammerdam believed that all three arguments were false and devoted a wide variety of investigations to refute these ideas.

“The 1669 Historia was devoted to the overthrow of the idea of metamorphosis, as its title explains: ‘General Account of the Bloodless Animals, in Which Will be Clearly Set Forward the True Basis of Their Slow Growth of Limbs, the Vulgar Error of the Transformation, Also Called Metamorphosis, Will be Effectually Washed Away, and Comprehended Concisely in Four Distinct Orders of Changes, or Natural Budding Forth of Limbs.’ The idea of metamorphosis, which Swammerdam was so determined to refute, was that of a sudden and total change from one kind of creature into another, comparable to the alchemical transmutation of a base metal into gold.

“William Harvey, calling the starting point of life an egg, defined two distinct modes of development from an egg. The chick grows in a hen’s egg by epigenesis, but the butterfly grows in its ‘egg’ (the chrysalis) by metamorphosis, as does an animal appearing in putrid matter. In epigenesis, the embryo is at first tiny and imperfect; it grows in size while acquiring its parts one after another. In metamorphosis the parts come into existence simultaneously and full-sized. Swammerdam consciously and energetically set out to destroy this supposed difference between the epigenetic development of higher animals and the metamorphic origin of lower animals. He used two kinds of evidence: the dissection of larvae and chrysalides before the final emergence of the adult, and a comparison among various types of insects including some that undergo only partial metamorphosis or none at all. It would seem that Swammerdam caught a clue to the nature of metamorphosis from his observations of the aquatic larvae of mayflies (which he first studied in 1661) and dragonflies (watched at Saumur in 1663 or 1664). The wings, which appear in so impressive a manner after the last molt, can be seen in a late larva, folded up in special protuberances on the back. The gradual growth of the insect can be easily seen in the successive larval stages. There is no difficulty in recognizing this process as the life cycle of one animal changing its form as it grows, just as the chick must change in appearance as well as in size before becoming a hen. Believing that the laws of nature are regular and simple, Swammerdam sought to explain all development according to one model. Those changes that seem metamorphic are really no different from the obviously gradual ones, except that they go on invisibly, under the skin.

“Curious to find the growth of a butterfly’s wings to be as epigenetic as a dragonfly’s, Swammerdam searched for the proper dissecting technique. In his thesis of 1667 he had promised that he would soon explain the transformation of a caterpillar into a chrysalis, and by 1669 he had found that if a mature caterpillar, just preparing to become a chrysalis, is treated first with boiling water, then with wine and vinegar, and if the skin is removed, the rudiments of limbs and wings may be discerned. This demonstration was thought to be significant and exciting, both by Swammerdam and by his contemporaries, but there is no evidence for the dramatic scenes portrayed by Boerhaave, Francis J. Cole, and others. An eyewitness account undermines the picture of Swammerdam as a silent auditor at Thévenot’s gatherings. The most dramatic moment for Swammerdam himself may have been when he learned that Malpighi had anticipated him, finding rudiments of wings and legs in a silkworm. Swammerdam claimed to have done his dissection in the presence of Magalotti, which would have been in June or July 1669. Swammerdam regarded this demonstration as a great achievement, for the parts of the butterfly are so soft, tender, and folded that they can be recognized in a late caterpillar on the verge of its change only with difficulty. In a slightly younger caterpillar that is active and feeding they can scarcely be distinguished, because they are even more fluid and confused with the other tissue, he said. Swammerdam did not claim to have detected them in an immature caterpillar. They are at first invisible, in his description, not because of any extreme minuteness but because they are too fluid.

“The point that Swammerdam considered most important, since it destroyed the previous ideas of metamorphosis, is that the parts of the butterfly do not come into being suddenly in the chrysalis but are already beginning to grow in the caterpillar. They develop by epigenesis, the process that Harvey described for higher animals, not by metamorphosis:

‘[The limbs] which a worm without legs acquires near the chest after its change are not born in the suddenness of changing, or, to speak more exactly, in the quickness of a budding out or rising up of limbs, but these are growing with the worm at their designated places under the skin, one after another by addition, that is, by epigenesis and these parts are not born suddenly, but grow on slowly, the one part after the other … and they are increased and born in this swelling, budding forth, rising up, budding, and as if stretching of new limbs, gradually by an addition of parts, epigenesis, and by no means by a transformation, metamorphosis; therein lies the sole foundation of all the changes of bloodless animals’” (DSB).

Cole, Comparative anatomy, pp. 270-305; Garrison-Morton 294; Hagen 2:208; Krivatsy 11599; Nissen ZBI 4052.



4to (197 x 150 mm), pp. xxviii, 168, 48, with 13 engraved plates and one letterpress folding table (paginated 49), title with small woodcut floral vignette Contemporary Dutch vellum, covers with double gilt rulings, gilt centrepiece and gilt floral hand-stamp in each corner, spine with 6 horizontal double gilt rulings. A fine copy with no restoration.

Item #6136

Price: $25,000.00