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DESCARTES, René (1596–1650)
THE FIRST TEXT-BOOK OF PHYSIOLOGY. FIRST EDITION, WITH FINE ENGRAVED PLATES.

DESCARTES, René (1596–1650)

De homine figuris et Latinitate donatus a Florentio Schuyl

Leyden: apud Petrum Leffen & Franciscum Moyardum, 1662
4to: a–d4 e2 A–P4 Q2, 80 leaves, pp. [36] 121 (i.e. 123, 111/112 repeated) [1]. Woodcut device on title, woodcut initials and headpieces. Many woodcut illustrations and 48 engravings printed in the text.
10 engraved plates: numbered Fol 1 Fig. 9, Fol. 110 nos 1–2, Fol. 118 Figs LII–LVII, Fig LVI. Fol. 1. fig. 9 has 6 attached flaps and is a repeat of the engraving, without the flaps, printed on p. 6; Fol. 118 Fig. LIV has one small flap; Fol. 118 Fig LVI
Condition: 204 x 157mm. Light browning and faint waterstains to 6 of the inserted plates and some light brown stains in a few gatherings.
Binding: Contemporary vellum boards, endleaves removed.
Provenance: Symbol for Venus under imprint, perhaps an owner’s symbol or code.
First edition, a Latin translation by Florentius Schuyl from a defective copy of the original French MS of L’homme; the original was not published until two years later in 1664. In another state of the title the publishers’ names are reversed in the imprint and there is a different device.
Bibliography: Guibert p. 196 no. 1; Grolier Medicine 31; Garrison–Morton 574; Wellcome II, p. 453; Krivatsy 3120; Norman 627.
£3,000

L’homme is known as the first text-book of physiology, and the first purely mechanistic account of bodily functions. Descartes was one of the first to embrace Harvey’s doctrine of the circulation and the book opens with an account of the cardiovascular system, illustrated by a plate of the heart with movable flaps. From a mechanistic survey of general physiology, Descartes moves to the nervous system which he treats in great detail. Particularly important is his discussion of the eye (drawing on Kepler for the optical part) and the physiology of perception.

‘The impact of the Cartesian physiological program, once it was publicly known, was enormous. In two ways – philosophically and physiologically – Descartes transformed long-standing beliefs about animals and men. Philosophically, of course, his notions of mind-body dualism and animal automatism had extremely important implications that were not lost on Henry More, Malebranche, Spinoza, and Leibniz, along with many others in the seventeenth century ... But physiologically, too, Descartes’ conceptions had an impact that in many ways was even more impressive than the philosophical influence, because it affected the actual course of contemporary science’. (Theodore M. Brown in DSB)
The remarkable engravings and woodcuts were commissioned by Schuyl, Descartes having left only one or two sketches. The errata on the last page, headed ‘Nota’ mostly relate to the illustrations, and include a woodcut to replace Fig. xxv on p. 61 (the image is reversed and the lettering altered). When Clerselier edited the text for the French edition two years later (see next item) he rejected these illustrations and commissioned new ones.
Keywords:     physiology