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Petrus Camper (1722-1789)

Medical man
Petrus Camper

Petrus Camper was born in 1722 in Leiden and his father was a learned and rich preacher. He was interested in many things in his youth, such as architecture, drawing, furniture making and maths. He studied at the University of Leiden where he received a broad scientific education.

Through lectures from ‘s Gravesande and Van Musschenbroek, Camper learned first hand about theories and methodologies of the new experimental physics. He had a broad interest in science but developed a special interest in medicine. The medical faculty in Leiden was one of the best in Europe. Bernhard Albinus’ anatomy lessons and those in botany from Adriaan van Rooyen were very important in the scientific forming of Petrus Camper.

After a scientific journey through England and France, Camper was made a professor by the University of Franeker in 1749. From 1756 Camper taught in Amsterdam and in 1763 he moved to Groningen where he became professor of theoretical medicine, anatomy, surgery and botany.

He tried, just as he did in Amsterdam and Franeker, to give his students the best possible education. He was known as an outstanding orator who was able to explain things in a clear and enjoyable manner. He supported his lectures with practical and drawings he himself made. During his professorship in Groningen, the number of students was three times higher than in the previous years.

A device used to assist birthing, drawn by Camper
A device used to assist birthing, drawn by Camper

Camper’s versatility was obvious in many fields. He was outstanding in both theoretical and practiced medicine and was important for the fields of surgery and obstetrics. He always insisted upon a good basis in anatomy.

Camper’s biggest contribution was in comparable anatomy, something which occupied him his whole life. Where many contemporaries where classifying animals based upon exterior features, Camper found the internal structure essential. He investigated similarities between vertebrate, both human and animal, laying the foundations for zoology. He also looked at the differences between human races using anatomical sections and skull measurements. Petrus Camper is one of the most important Dutch scientists of the 18th century. His contemporary Goethe described him as a "meteor of spirit, science, talent and activity".

Film and audio interview on Petrus Camper

In a short film (Dutch and English) and an audio interview (in Dutch), made on the occasion of the 400-year anniversary of the University of Groningen, prof. dr. Mart van Lieburg en prof.dr. Bart Ramakers about the versatile Petrus Camper.

Last modified:22 May 2019 2.07 p.m.
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