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Petrus Camper

Petrus Camper
Petrus Camper
Born May 11, 1722
Died April 7, 1789
The Hague
Nationality Dutch
Fields anatomist
surgeon (dissection)
Institutions University of Franeker, Amsterdamse Atheneum, University of Groningen
Alma mater University of Leiden, Oxford College
Doctoral students Martin van Marum
Known for inventing the term "mammoth

Peter, Pieter, or usually Petrus Camper (May 11, 1722 – April 7, 1789), was a Dutch physician, anatomist, physiologist, midwife, zoologist, anthropologist, paleontologist and a naturalist. He studied the orangutan, the rhinoceros, and the skull of a mosasaur, which he believed was a whale. One of the first to interest himself in comparative anatomy and paleontology, he also invented the measure of the facial angle. Camper was not a dull professor in his library, becoming a celebrity in Europe and a member of the Royal Society. He was interested in architecture, mathematics, and made drawings for his lectures. He designed and made tools for his patients, always trying to be practical. Besides he was a sculptor, a patron of art and a conservative politician.


  • Studies and teaching 1
  • Surgeon's Guild 2
  • Comparative anatomy 3
  • "Facial angle" 4
  • Legacy 5
  • Works 6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Studies and teaching

The Academia van Vrieslant in Franeker

Camper was the son of a local well-to-do minister, who made his fortune in the East Indies. As a brilliant alumnus, he studied in the University of Leiden both medicine and philosophy, and got a degree in both sciences on the same day at the age of 24. His professors included Pieter van Musschenbroek and Willem Jacob 's Gravesande for physics and mathematics, Herman Boerhaave and Hieronymus David Gaubius for medicine, and François Hemsterhuis for philosophy. After both his parents died Camper then traveled in 1748 to Prussia, England (where he met with William Smellie), France and Switzerland. He was offered sundry professorships, being first named professor of philosophy, anatomy and surgery in 1750 at the University of Franeker. Camper married Johanna Bourboom in 1756, the daughter of the burgomaster of Leeuwarden, whom he had met in 1754 while treating her husband, the burgomaster from Harlingen, who died the same year he married her.[1]

Surgeon's Guild

Camper's Anatomy lesson painted in 1758 commemorating his installment as "praelector" of the Surgeon's guild in 1755 in Amsterdam. This painting hung in the Waag and later in the Athenaeum Illustre of Amsterdam

Starting in 1755, he resided in Amsterdam where he occupied a chair of anatomy and surgery at the Athenaeum Illustre, later completed by a medicine chair. He investigated inguinal hernia, patella and the best form of shoe. He withdrew five years later to dedicate himself to scientific research and lived on his property just outside Franeker. In 1762 he became politically active in Groningen,in particular with regard to public health issues such as vaccination against smallpox. He also introduced several new instruments and operationprocedures for surgery and obstetrics and became focused on the problem of the head of the baby getting stuck during birth. In 1763 he chose to accept the chair of anatomy, surgery and botanics at the University of Groningen.[2]

Both in Amsterdam and in later years, Camper kept a surgical clinic and showed selfmade drawings to illustrate his eloquent lectures, before retiring in 1773. His main focus of attention was for anatomy, zoology and his collection of minerals and fossils. Among his many works, he studied osteology of birds and discovered the presence of air in the inner cavities of birds' skeletons. He investigated the anatomy of eight orangutans, and claimed it was a different species from the human being, and not simply a "degenerate" type of (white) human, as some contemporary scientists theorized. Petrus Camper published memoirs on the hearing of fishes and the sound of frogs, and dissected an elephant, and a rhinoceros from Java. He studied the diseases of rinderpest and rabies.

Comparative anatomy

Camper was interested in classification of all sorts of fossil discoveries, such as the Mosasaurus in Maastricht, which he inspected and drew in the 1770s. His drawings were later published by Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond

One of the first scholar to study Diderot and Goethe. In 1923 and 1939 some Dutch authors suggested that Camper foreshadowed Goethe's famous idea of "type" — a common structural pattern in some manner[4]

"Facial angle"

Petrus Camper is also known for his theory of the "facial angle" originally in connection with two lectures he gave in Amsterdam in 1770 to art students on beauty and portraiture. He was concerned with the fact that all artists painted the black Magus in the nativity with Caucasian face. He determined that modern humans had facial angles between 70° and 80°, with African and Asian angles closer to 70°, and European angles closer to 80. According to his new portraiture technique, an angle is formed by drawing two lines: one horizontally from the nostril to the ear; and the other perpendicularly from the advancing part of the upper jawbone to the most prominent part of the forehead. He claimed that antique Greco-Roman statues presented an angle of 100°-95°, Europeans of 80°, 'Orientals' of 70°, Black people of 70° and the orangutan of 42-58°, but not in an overtly racist fashion-he merely claimed that, out of all human races, Africans were most removed from the Classical sense of ideal beauty. These results were later used as scientific racism, with research continued by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844) and Paul Broca (1824–1880).

Camper, however, agreed with Buffon in drawing a sharp line between human and animals (although he was misinterpreted by Diderot, who claimed that he was a supporter of the Great Chain of Being theory).[5]


His son Adriaan Gilles also became a scientist and published much of his father's unpublished research in addition to a biography of him.[6]

In 1888, the son of the last female descendant of Petrus Camper petitioned the Dutch crown for a name change to honor his mother, Theodora Aurelia Louisa Camper (1821–1890). The petition was granted by Royal Decree No. 15; and the descendants of Abraham Adriaan Aurelius Gerard Camper-Titsingh Sr. (1845–1910) and Abraham Adriaan Aurelius Gerard Camper-Titsingh Jr. (1889–1974) live today in the United States.[7]

The Dutch author, Thomas Rosenboom, used Petrus Camper as a character in his novel, Gewassen vlees (1994).[8]


  • Demonstrationes anatomico- pathologicae [1760–1762]
  • Dissertation sur les différences des traits du visage and Discours sur l'art de juger les passions de l'homme par les traits de son visage
  • On the Best Form of Shoe
  • Two lectures to the Amsterdam Drawing society on the facial angle (1770)
  • On the Points of Similarity between the Human Species, Quadrupeds, Birds, and Fish; with Rules for Drawing, founded on this Similarity (1778)
  • Historiae literariae cultoribus S.P.D. Petrus Camper. A list of his work, published by himself.
  • Works by Petrus Camper, the French compilation of Camper's work, based on Camper's French lecture notes and the posthumous publications by his son A.G. Camper, published and partially translated by Hendrik Jansen in 1803 in three octavo volumes.[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ Friesian society notes on Petrus Camper's period in Friesland, by P.C.J.A. Boeles
  2. ^ Studying in Groningen Through the Ages: A History of the University of Groningen and the First English Department in the Netherlands. Groningen: Groningen University Press, 2014, p. 87-88. ISBN 978-90-367-7125-2
  3. ^
  4. ^ See Miriam Claude Meijer, ""Petrus Camper's Protean Performances: The Metamorphoses" here at the Wayback Machine (archived October 22, 2009) (with a drawing of Camper's animated metamorphose) – URL accessed on February 28, 2007 (English)
  5. ^ Ann Thomson, Issues at stake in eighteenth-century racial classification, Cromohs, 8 (2003): 1–20 (English)
  6. ^ "Levensschets van P. Camper", by Adriaan Gilles camper, Leeuw, 1791.
  7. ^ Nederland's Patriciaat, Vol. 13 (1923).
  8. ^ Rosenboom, Thomas. (2004). Gewassen vlees.
  9. ^ Oeuvres de Pierre Camper, qui ont pour objet l'histoire naturelle, la physiologie et l'anatomie comparée, Paris, 1803, Volume 2 on Google books
  10. ^ Oeuvres de Pierre Camper, qui ont pour objet l'histoire naturelle, la physiologie et l'anatomie comparée, Paris, 1803, Volume 3 on Google books
  11. ^ "'"Author Query for 'Camper.  


  • Bouillet, Marie-Nicolas Bouillet and Alexis Chassang. (1878). Dictionnaire universel d'histoire et de géographie.
  • Meijer, Miriam Claude. "Petrus Camper's Protean Performances: The Metamorphoses" (English)
  • Rosenboom, Thomas. (2004). Gewassen vlees. Amsterdam: Querido. ISBN 90-214-7988-5
  • Thomson, Ann. Issues at Stake in Eighteenth-century Racial Classification, Cromohs, 8 (2003): 1–20 (English)
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the  
  • Studying in Groningen Through the Ages: A History of the University of Groningen and the First English Department in the Netherlands. Groningen: Groningen University Press, 2014. ISBN 978-90-367-7125-2

External links

  • Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
  • University of Groningen on Camper
  • Author page in the DBNL
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