Statue Sarah-Yu Zeebroek

    I had never heard of Anna Maria van Schurman. In 1641 she published a treatise ‘On the suitability of women’s minds for science’. One of her arguments was: ‘Anyone who naturally desires the arts and sciences is suitable for it. Women have that desire. So they are suitable for it.’

    I can’t seem to get a pin in between. What Van Schurman formulates here in a curious way is a sound principle: gender is not relevant in scientific terms and should therefore not play a role. The practice was, of course, different. Van Schurman was considered a great scholar by many famous contemporaries, but her advocacy for women to enter the academy died in the usual prejudice. The universities have remained male strongholds for centuries. In some ways it still is: more than half of all students are women, but a majority of professors are men. So talented women are still overlooked.

    I met Anna Maria van Schurman in Books that made history a catchy book with essays on influential scientific publications. It was published to celebrate that Leiden will be the European City of Science in 2022, so all the works discussed have a connection with the city. Although many big names pass by – Hugo de Groot, Carl von Linné (Linnaeus), Galileo Galilei, Rudolph Thorbecke and Johan Huizinga – there are also quite a few surprises, such as Anna Maria van Schurman.

    The fact that Leiden was a stronghold for men is also apparent from the fact that the collection only features one other woman, Adrienne van Till–d’Aulnis de Bourouill, who wrote a dissertation in 1970 on the medical-legal aspects of the end of life. She wonders what ‘death’ actually means. Until the 1970s, death was determined by heart rate and respiration, drop in body temperature, stiffening and discoloration. But those criteria were not useful in recently developed interventions such as resuscitation and organ transplantation. CPR regularly leads to a deep comatose state. According to the old criteria, someone is still alive and a doctor is obliged to treat, however pointless that may be. And organs for transplantation should be removed as soon as possible after death: using the traditional criteria is too late.

    So the boundary had to be sharper. Van Till first asked another question: what is a human being? Her answer sounds rather accounting, but is clear enough: ‘A human being is an integrated functioning psychosomatic totality.’ This is how she arrived at the criterion of brain death, which still plays an important role in medical practice: without active brain function, ‘integration’ and a ‘psychosomatic totality’ are impossible and there is no longer any meaningful life.

    Van Till was the first to explore the murky terrain of the end of life. Her work has left traces in the Medical Treatment Agreement Act (1995) and the Organ Donation Act (1996). Later in her life she was involved in the founding of the Dutch Association for Voluntary Euthanasia, the NVVE, of which she was chairman for a while.

    The work of Van Schurman and Van Till already indicates that we find a motley collection in the collection. As far as I’m concerned, that’s no objection: you are, as it were, in a scientific Wunderkammer and goes from 16th-century nautical charts to enlightenment philosophy, the King James Version, medical textbooks, plant classification, the history of Japan, medicinal plants from Brazil and the late Middle Ages in Europe to the basic principles of our democracy. Delicious.

    For example, I read about the Danish scholar Ole Worm who was able to demonstrate in his Museum Worminianum (1655) that the skull with an enormous tooth from his collection did not come from the mythical unicorn, but from a narwhal, a toothed whale. It was nice to read that he also treats a human skull in the animal department. Apparently this presented no problems, while some three centuries later Darwin caused great consternation by stating that humans are indeed animals, related to apes.

    Also wonderful: the story about Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje who went to Mecca in 1885 to become acquainted with Islamic culture. He was a dedicated researcher. To enter Mecca he had to pose as a Muslim, so he had himself circumcised, took an Arabic name and, upon arrival in Mecca, walked seven circles around the Kaaba. He published a three-volume work on Mecca, which is not only informative but also very entertaining. What about the veiled sarcasm in a passage on the subordinate role of women: ‘Thus the woman only keeps the charms with which Allah has equipped her, to give the man in earthly existence a foretaste of the pleasures of paradise and to bear him children.’

    In a concluding reflection, historian Pieter Slaman explains the title of the collection. He argues that history is no longer seen as the fulfillment of a divine plan, directed by kings and emperors, a matter of class struggle, and so on, but is driven by “the power of ideas, the power of thoughts and stories that can create a new reality.” create.’ And then he proudly states: ‘This collection presents such ideas.’

    I do agree with the statement that stories are crucial. Homo sapiens would be better gay narciss can be called, the narrating or narrative person, who only finds her way through reality when she tells stories about it. And I also agree with the suggestion that scientists’ ideas have often generated new stories; that, as Slaman writes, “man new ways [boden] to see the world’.

    Yet in Slaman’s theorem there is an element of wishful thinking. He ignores the cold fact that scientific ideas are at best trusted by a relatively small, intellectual elite, but not widely. In my opinion, they are not commonplace among politicians and administrators, civil servants and journalists. It is one of the most wonderful phenomena in our society: that it is largely based on knowledge that most people have no idea about, including the people who are more or less supposed to guide us. That sometimes makes you think. Why does a muddlehead like Willem Engel get a hearing? Why isn’t American politician Jim Inhofe taunted when he takes a snowball into the House of Representatives as proof that global warming isn’t happening? Why don’t we start laughing when we read about ‘the natural order of the distinction between men and women’, as stated in the SGP program? I can only understand that against a background of broad scientific illiteracy.

    In the meantime, it will not be up to scientists themselves. Anyone who visits the science department of a bookstore knows that there is a generous selection of excellent, accessible to the layperson. science writing, on just about any subject imaginable. When I discovered such books at the time, whole worlds opened up to me, as happened again with this beautiful, carefully edited collection.

    Kasper van Ommen and Garrelt Verhoeven (eds.): Books that made history. Athenaeum – Polak & Van Gennep; 256 pages; € 27.50.

    Books that made history Image

    Books that made history

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