Objects of Medical Collections: Musk

Blog-Author: Anja-Silvia Goeing

Musk is a secretion originating from the Asian musk deer. (1) Since ancient times, it was used pharmaceutically or as a perfume. (2) Investigating how musk has been documented in the 16th and 17th centuries helps us to understand the development of medical studies in teaching and research in this period. (3)

In the second half of the 16th century and because of its odor, musk had attracted the attention of the physician Conrad Gessner (1516–1565). He documented the animal secretion in three of his many encyclopedic collections written to prepare prospective medical doctors: In the first part of his Historia Animalium on mammals he identified an Asian musk deer’s gland as the source of musk secretion. He also described the African civet as producer of a secretion of similar smell. (4) In his commentary on Aristotle's book De Anima, Gessner used musk as an example of a substances absorbed by the human sense of smell. In this book he discussed the seat and operation of the five external senses, touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing. He gave musk a place as an object of smell between his two main categories, the good-smelling and the malodorous. Gessner classified the smell ambivalently, allowing it the faculty to be perceived in some circumstances/situations as a good smell, in others as a bad smell. (5) Gessner also mentioned musk in his Thesaurus Evonymus as one of the ingredients of perfume. (6) The Thesaurus is about modes and apparatus of distilling and describes the technological equipment required to carry out chemical processes that mix and preserve scents. Gessner had addressed his books to students of medicine and philosophy, and he described the Thesaurus especially as a "physical, medical and partly chemical book."

In all three of Gessner’s works touching on  medical knowledge musk was listed as only one of many substances. Only much later, in the later seventeenth century, did the first book appear, based on a doctoral dissertation, that took musk as its sole topic, and thus allowed a more thorough study of this secretion. In 1682 the Augsburg physician, Lucas Schroeck, published the book "Historia Moschi", on the history of musk, in his home town. (7) As he himself wrote, he produced the book according to the rules (ad normam) of the Academia naturae Curiosorum, the Scientific Academy established in Schweinfurt in 1652, which he had joined in 1677. (8)

Historia Moschi emerged from Schroeck’s Jena dissertation on musk. He defended his doctorate in 1667, the thesis was published in the same year in Jena. (9) Chair of the dissertation committee was the Jena professor of medicine Johann Theodor Schenck (1619–1671). Schenck had been professor of anatomy and botany in Jena since 1653, and from 1663 he was also professor of theoretical medicine. (10) His work included textbooks and reference books on anatomy, dietetics and botany. (11) Some of the numerous theses that emerged under his leadership at the University of Jena, specified individual entries from medical encyclopedias, including the said work on musk and a study in 1672 on cinnamon, that, like musk, counted among the substances that produced medically used odors, this time from the field of botany. (12)

A comparison of Schroeck’s Academy-guided book with his thesis on musk shows that the former expanded the information given in the dissertation: While the dissertation had 93 pages, the book numbered 229 pages. Both contained three images, but the academy book’s images were engravings of higher quality, containing more detail than the three woodcuts of the dissertation. The presentation of the gland, for example, was now very detailed and much easier to identify.

Both the dissertation and the monograph quote Conrad Gessner's Historia Animalium among many other ancient and contemporary authors as their reference. While the dissertation presents its subject in an organisation very similar to Gessner’s historia animalium with the animal and its habitat at the beginning of the discussion, the academy-guided book is re-organized to focus on the extraction of musk, and to include not only the gland of the musk deer, but also other animals producing similar smells. The re-organization also points to many pharmaceutical aspects of the research, which Gessner and Schroeck’s dissertation had not specified; it identified and examined  the different ways in which humans could use musk.  However, the greatest difference in Schroeck’s book from both his dissertation and Gessner’s writings lay in the status of experiments included in the written record. The academy-guided book cites not just the ancient authors, but especially those colleagues who had recently explored  and tested musk experimentally, such as the anatomist Johann Rudolph Salzmann (p.19), who brought out his work Varia observata anatomica hactenus inedita in 1669. (13)

The publications about musk shed light on a development in medical research between the mid sixteenth and late seventeenth century. While Gessner treated musk as one item of a whole collection of specimens or objects under zoological headers, the header of general physics, or headers given by ancient perfumery research, Schenck and Schroeck, at least in his disseration,  examined the secretion on its own, giving due space to all known details that other literature might provide. This university dissertation research was not very remote from the earlier collectionism, although it gave more attention to non-collection-based questions, such as how to extract the musk from the gland. In the last instance, the academy-guided book, Schroeck was writing for a scientific community outside the university. He included contemporary anatomical and chemical discoveries made in other universities for his academic readers, and also stressed the practical and pharmaceutical benefits to human health of studying musk.       

 (1) Cf. http://www.wwf.at/de/menu24/arten120/ , accessed 10 July 2016.

(2) Rowe, David. Chemistry and Technology of Flavours and Fragrances. John Wiley & Sons, 2009, 143-165.

(3) Compare for the general history of medical studies in the 16th and 17th centuries: Siraisi, Nancy G. “Medicine, 1450–1620, and the History of Science.” Isis 103.3 (2012): 491–514; Klestinec, Cynthia. Medical education in Padua: students, faculty and facilities, in Grell, Ole Peter. Centres of Medical Excellence?: Medical Travel and Education in Europe, 1500-1789. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010. The History of Medicine in Context, 193-220.

(4) Gessner, Conrad. Historiae Animalium Lib.I. de Quadrupedibus Uiuiparis. Zürich: Froschauer, 1551, p. 786–793 (Capreolus moschi: Musk deer), p. 948–949 (Feles Zibethi (Zibeth cat).

(5) Vives, Juan Luis, et al. Ioannis Lodovici Vivis Valentini de Anima & Vita Libri Tres. Eiusdem Argumenti Viti Amerbachii de Anima Libri IIII. Philippi Melanthonis Liber Vnus. His Accedit Nunc Primùm Conradi Gesneri De Anima Liber, Sententiosa Breuitate, Velutiq́ue per Tabulas & Aphorismos Magna Ex Parte Conscriptus ... . Zürich: Hans Jakob Geßner, 1563, p. 846, 854.

(6) Gessner, Conrad. Thesaurus Evonymi Philiatri, de remediis secretis, liber. Zürich: Andreas Geßner, 1554, 174-175 (Amber, musk and camphora are mixt for a medication), p. 266–269 (rose water with musk), and other places.

(7) Schroeck, Lucas. Historia Moschi. Augustae Vindelicorum: Göbelius, 1682.

(8) As Leopoldina, the academy had its seat from the 19th century in Halle, Germany, and was promoted in 2008 to National Academy of Sciences. Today, its full title is Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina – Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften. Lucas Schroeck was 1693 elected as president of the then called  Academia naturae curiosorum and held the title until his death in 1730. His society name was Celsus I. See for more details Neigebaur, Johann Ferdinand. Geschichte der Kaiserlichen Leopold Carolinischen Deutschen Akademie der Naturforscherwährend des zweiten Jahrunderts ihres Bestehens. Friedrich Fromann, 1860, p. 14.

(9) Schenck, Johann Theodor; Schroeck, Lucas. Exercitationem Academicam De Moscho, Illustris Medicorum Ordinis in Florentissima Salana Consensu, Sub Praesidio ... Dn. Johannis Theodori Schenckii ... Publicae Disquisitioni Submittit Lucas Schroeckius, Augustanus. Autor & Respondens, Ad Diem Octobris. A.S.R. MDCLXVII. Jena: Wertherus, 1667.

(10) Article „Schenck, Johann Theodor“ by Julius Pagel in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, edited by Historische Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, vol. 31 (1890), p. 51–52, Digital full text in Wikisource, URL: https://de.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=ADB:Schenck,_Johann_Theodor&oldid=2506016 (Version of 10 July 2016)

(11) Compare Zimmermann, Barbara. “Die Diätetik bei Johann Theodor Schenck: e. Beitr. zur Medizingeschichte der Barockzeit.” Heidelberg, Univ., Diss., 1988.

(12) Schenck, Johann Theodor, Johann Philipp Höchstetter. Dissertatio Medica De Cinnamomo. Jena: Wertherus, 1670.

(13) Saltzmann, Johann Rudolph, and Theodorus Wynants. Varia observata anatomica hactenus inedita. Amsterdam: Konynenberg, 1669.