Photo by Reyer Boxem

A life among anatomical objects

John Le Grand’s sinister specimens

In the eighties, young teachers looking for a job were having a particularly hard time. John Le Grand ended up among babies in formaldehyde and splayed-open body parts at the anatomical museum. ‘The first time was kind of gross, but you get used to it really quickly.’
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Door Christien Boomsma

13 January om 16:29 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:14 uur.
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By Christien Boomsma

January 13 at 16:29 PM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:14 PM.

One day, when John Le Grand was setting up an exposition, he took just a single step back. It was one step too many. He bumped into the glass jar he had placed on the floor behind him and knocked it over. The glass broke, and a piece of intestine that had been submerged in formaldehyde two hundred years ago by famous anatomist Pieter de Riemer slithered out onto the floor of the University Museum.

Now what?

‘I felt like an idiot’, says Le Grand. ‘But I knew that I couldn’t let it dry out, so I wrapped it in wet fabric.’ 

Cradling the wrapped up intestine, he got on his bike and sped through the snow-slicked city streets to the museum warehouse at Zernike. He selected a glass jar from the ones he’d been saving up for just such an emergency and filled it with Kaiserling, a fixative used to preserve specimens. He carefully slipped the dented intestine into the jar. All good.

Fortunately, this was the only time in his career as manager of the RUG’s anatomical collection that he endangered one of the precious specimens. The only other time a jar broke, it was because a museum visitor sat down on a table. It contained the head of a young orang utan, one that Petrus Camper himself had preserved, 250 years ago. ‘My heart skipped a beat’, says Le Grand. ‘It was a very well-known specimen, too. Camper refers to it in the discussion whether black people were descended from apes.’ Camper said the answer to this question was a definitive ‘no’. 

Teaching academy

For 37 years, John Le Grand managed the University Museum’s anatomical collection. For 37 years, he lived and worked among babies in formaldehyde, body parts splayed open in jars, pieces of skin and entire penises floating in alcohol, oil of turpentine, or the currently-used Kaiserling fixative. He took care of the specimens that had been preserved by the famous anatomists of the past, which were used to teach medical students for hundreds of years. 

Le Grand took care of the specimens preserved by famous anatomists

But now he’s done. He’s sixty-six years and four months old, and retirement beckons. In one week, he will leave his beloved specimens forever. Like the little baby arm in a lace sleeve, holding a leaf. ‘That’s what they loved back then. The leaf symbolised how fleeting life was.’  He’s also saying goodbye to the specimen of the lymphatic vessels injected with mercury, which has made the glands visible and shine and sparkle like jewellery.

He smiles. He remembers when he first entered the anatomy building at the Oostersingel, in 1981. He’d just graduated from the teaching academy and was applying to anything he could find. ‘I even applied to jobs in the Bible Belt, and on Vlieland’, he recalls. ‘But there was just nothing to be had in education.’ To make ends meet, he took on work at a tyre factory, and even a concrete factory. ‘I needed the work experience.’ 

Treasure trove

Then, he made contact with a professor of anatomy, and he turned out to be looking for a prosector – someone who preps the bodies of people who donated theirs to science for the students in the dissection room. Part of that job was taking care of the historical collection stored in a large room underneath the dissection room, for one day a week. 

‘A weird place to end up’, he says, especially considering he’d never so much as held a scalpel before. He quickly acclimated. ‘Just like the medical students who were cutting up stuff for the first time’, he grins. ‘The first time was kind of gross, but you get used to it really quickly.’ 

Specimens were in poor conditions or attributed to the wrong anatomists

It was the historical collection he fell in love with, however. ‘It was a treasure trove of undiscovered, uncatalogued specimens’, he says. ‘Just a mess.’ The specimens were in poor condition, attributed to the wrong anatomists, or straight-up labelled wrong. Le Grand felt they were going to waste. This collection was in need of some love and attention, as well as an audience.

He went over each object, cross-checking with the catalogues left behind by men like Petrus Camper, Pieter de Riemer, or Martinus Woerdeman. The anatomical knowledge he was quickly gaining in the dissection room really helped. 

Potential closure

Le Grand grew to increasingly appreciate the objects under his care. Some of the specimens are so thin that you can see straight through them. Others have been carefully injected with red or blue wax so the veins are visible. He also loves the beautiful language with which men like De Riemer and Camper described the specimens on the labels or in their catalogues. ‘I started feeling affinity for these men’, says Le Grand. 

He started writing a small museum guide, which later turned into a more expansive guide. Slowly but surely, people started coming to the obscure little museum in the anatomy building. When the department moved around the year 2000, the action committee Sterk Water vehemently fought the potential closure of the museum.

They were successful. However, the collection of specimens was subsumed by the University Museum, which did unfortunately mean that the specimens were no longer part of a permanent exhibition, for the first time in a long time. ‘That was a bit of a bummer’, Le Grand admits. On the other hand, his collection would be part of several very successful exhibitions. The museum also hired him full time, allowing him to spend all his time preserving the specimens.

Bizarre collection

He shows a human penis in a jar that’s been sealed with red wax. Pieter de Riemer put the penis in oil of turpentine which, although it looked great for years as it turns a specimen practically translucent, ended up discolouring and tainting the object. It can turn objects into strange little lumps at the bottom of their vial. Time for Le Grand to intervene. 

There’s something sinister about objects that were once part of a living person and are now suspended in jars

Take the wafer-thin foetus jaws, which have been attached to glass plates and suspended in a gelatine solution. They used to be attached to a human hair, but the hair had dissolved, leaving the specimens to lie dejectedly on the bottom of their jars. ‘I’d never be able to string another hair through any of those jaws’, he says. ‘They’re just too fragile. But this is a great solution. You can’t even see the glass in the Kaiserling fixative’, he explains. 

He knows it’s a bizarre collection. There is something sinister about objects that were once part of a living, breathing person and are now suspended in jars. But he’s fascinated by the skill on display from the people who made these objects, and he’s proud of the fact that he’s saved the specimens from certain doom.  

Nevertheless, he’s at peace with the fact that it’s over. After all, there’s more to life. He’ll soon have more time to spend rehearsing with his band. He loves to read. He is also starting as a volunteer at the café at cemetery Selwerderhof. ‘Hmmm. I suppose it’s kind of thematic… I guess I just can’t escape death.’

Translation by Sarah van Steenderen


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