Philip Verheyen

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Philip Verheyen Dissecting His Amputated Leg. Anonymous. From the collection of Pieter Deheijde.

Philip Verheyen (April 23, 1648 – January 28, 1710) was a Belgian surgeon.

His birth and the beginning of his education[edit]

As the third child of eight, Philip Verheyen was born in Verrebroek, Belgium, (most likely in his parents' house, standing on a small plot of owned land in the area called "Borring", close to the border with Meerdonk) to Thomas Verheyen and Joanna Goeman. He was baptized in the parish church of Verrebroek on the 24th of April 1648. Little is known of his childhood. As a young boy he was probably a cowherd and it is assumed that he learned to read and write at the local parish school. Local folk tales claim that he had such a brilliant memory that he could recite the pastor's sermon after attending mass on Sunday.

The pastor of the village took him under his wing and he was sent to Leuven in 1672 where he spent three years at Heilige-Drievuldigheidscollege. He began his studies in the arts department, proving to be a talented draftsman. It was here that he was first introduced to anatomy drawing, copying Vesalius's 15th century woodblock prints and plaster reproductions of Greek and Roman antiquity. It was also at this time that he learnt the technique of etching, which he put to use in his famous book, Corporis Humani Anatomia (1693).

The amputation and the Phantom Limb[edit]

Concluding his studies in the arts in 1675 Verheyen went on to study theology with the intention of following in the footsteps of his mentor and joining the clergy to become a priest. It was at this crucial juncture that an illness resulted in the amputation of his left leg rendering him unfit for the clergy. This event proved to be of utmost importance to the subsequent path he chose.[1]

Amputations were quite common during this period and were performed in order to prevent disease and infection - that could not otherwise be cured - from spreading. It is also important to state here that the surgeon who performed Verheyen's amputation in Leiden had been a student of the anatomist Frederik Ruysch and on the patient's insistence had preserved his amputated leg for possible further study at a later date. Though the exact techniques used for preservation were a carefully guarded secret, the injection fluids he used to replace the perishable body fluids probably included talc, tallow of white wax, cinnabar and oil of lavender. Once the leg was injected, it was placed in a container of liquor balsamicus or Nantic brandy and black pepper, which permanently prevented decomposition. It is thought that Verheyen's strong religious views made him deeply suspicious of burying one part of his body before the remainder was ready for the same fate.[2]

Having severed off the infection that could very well have cost Verheyen his life he was confronted with a new quandary - something he never spoke of openly during his many years as an anatomist. Philip Verheyen began to experience what is now termed as a "Phantom limb" - a feeling that the missing limb is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. He also began to experience phantom pains that occur when the missing limb causes discomfort (Some other sensations include warmth, cold, itching, squeezing and burning. The missing limb often feels shorter and may feel as if it is in a distorted and painful position.) Sensations which in many ways prompted him to take up a career in anatomy in order to probe and understand this phenomenon and also write the deeply personal series of notes (1700-1710) that may be translated either as " Notes on My Amputated Leg," or "Letters to My Amputated Leg," the former seeming more probable, while the latter is more in keeping with the tone of the notes.[3]

His career and the influence of Ruysch and Spinoza[edit]

Embarking on a career in medicine, he initially continued at Heilige-Drievuldigheidscollege and then in 1678 moved to Leids Universitair Medich Centrum in Leiden. Govard Bidloo, whose career would overshadow that of Verheyen, was only a year older than he was and also a student at the Universitair. Bidloo went on to take up professorship at the Hague in 1685 when he published his Anatomia Humani Corporis, and in 1696 became professor at Leiden.[1]

Leiden proved to be a central point in Verheyen's medical and philosophical development in the early 1680s. Thirty miles south of Amsterdam and 12 miles north of the Voorburg (near the Hague), he found himself between two of the most incisive and radical figures of the late 17th century in the fields of medicine and theology: namely, Dr. Frederik Ruysch and Baruch Spinoza.

Though Spinoza himself had died in the winter of 1677, he had set in motion a whole school of thought that centered near the Hague. In fact study groups had begun to form all over northern Europe where students met privately and discussed his work. While we are certain that such groups existed in Leiden, whether or not Verheyen participated in these dialogues is up for conjecture. What we do know for certain is that during his Leiden years the young theologian turned anatomist read Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (A Theologico-Political Treatise) and Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (The Ethics) very closely. In Verheyen's copies of these books one finds detailed notes and passionate refutations penned on scraps of butcher paper. Often several contradictory, or at least competing comments annotate the same passage leading us to believe that Verheyen re-read these passages over several years, often changing or refining his views and arguments.[4]

It seems that despite Verheyen's vehement resistance against Spinoza's views, the Neutral Monist stance - that the universe is singular in aspect and that the "mental" and "physical" were mere attributes of this primal stuff - appealed to him. This, especially as a way for Verheyen to resolve the phenomenon of the phantom limb which he had begun to perceive as evidence of concrete mental projections into corporeal space (the very view that he so stubbornly resisted).[4]

Ruysch's theatrical dissections were no less influential in Verheyen's philosophical formation. While studying medicine at Leiden he had traveled to Amsterdam almost yearly to witness the famous dissections at the Surgeon's Guild. The spectacle of surgery was amplified by Dr. Ruysch's ability to preserve and restore the color of the corpse so that it seemed to come alive. He went so far as to inject the preserved cadaver with pigments in order to return color and texture to its otherwise bloodless, macabre presence. These public dissections were ticketed events that drew large crowds of both professional and lay people. Five such tickets have been found, ironically used as bookmarks in Verheyen's copies of "Ethics" and "A Theologico-Political Treatise."

The Return to Leuven and his death[edit]

In 1689 he moved back to Leuven to become Rector Magnificus at the Catholic University of Leuven. He gave lessons in anatomy and surgery and also practiced medicine. As a result of his many publications, in a short period of time he acquired renown both in and outside the country.[1]

No doubt moved by Ruysch's example, by 1693 Verheyen began dissections on his preserved left leg. He is known for having coined the term "Chorda Achillis" during this time - referring to the only part of Achilles's body that his mother held, as she dipped him into the Styx leaving it vulnerable to decay and death. As gleaned from his Notes, his aim was to prove that the nagging sensation of his phantom limb in fact originated from the actual amputated limb, rather than some psychosomatic, or worse still, numinous force. Proving this would not only relieve him of his perplexing affliction but also create a concrete foundation for a refutation of Spinoza's Monism.[5]

It was also 1693 that saw the first publication of his "Corporis Humani Anatomia." The second edition published in 1706 was greatly enlarged and improved on the original edition, including a second volume or "supplementum" which contained new material and an appendix, "Controversia Inter Authorem Supplementi Anatomici..." dealing with the controversy involving Tauvry and Mery over the circulation of blood and the "foramen ovale" in the fetus. The "Corporis" ran 21 editions, which he himself revised. Through the first decade of the 18th century it served as schoolbook in almost all universities in Europe and replaced Bartholinus's anatomic compendium as the preferred text.[5]

By 1705 Verheyen was the Rector Magnificus only in name. His health had dwindled and it is said that he withdrew from his public life spending more and more time in his private laboratory that adjoined his cottage. His Notes became exceedingly scattered and unnecessarily extensive during this period and by 1708 were almost unintelligible.[6]

Jan Palfyn (1650-1730), Verheyen's student and renowned anatomist and obstetrician in his own right comments in his private memoirs that during his visit to his mentor's Laboratory in the Fall of 1710, he found Verheyen intently gazing out of his window in some distraction. His amputated leg lay on the surgery table dissected into so many separate parts. Each infinitesimal tendon, muscle and nerve cut down to its primary unit, was labeled and spread across the wooden tabletop.

That winter, Philippe Verheyen died and was buried near the Abbey of Vlierbeek.[2] Though there is no written record of this fact, it is assumed that his leg was buried along with him.


  1. ^ a b c LINDEBOOM, Dutch medical biography, p. 2046
  2. ^ a b JAN PALFIJN, Verhandelingen
  3. ^ HOORNAERT, Philip Verheyens verheerlijking, p. 15
  4. ^ a b VAN DRIESSCHE, Bij de 300ste verjaring, p. 591-594
  5. ^ a b VAN PAEMEL, Filip Verheyen, p. 77-81.
  6. ^ PIETER DEHEIJDE; Amputaties/ Bewaringen, p. 53-61