Anita Guerrini

Winner of the 2018 Pfizer Award for best scholarly book

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Anita Guerrini (Oregon State University)

This year the Pfizer Committee (consisting of Elaine Leong, Dagmar Schäfer, and Crosbie Smith (Chair)) began by agreeing on a long shortlist of 21 titles from around 80 nominated works. It soon became clear to Committee members that the standard of scholarship was as high as ever, with some particularly impressive and weighty tomes for consideration. Thus the task over the summer months of narrowing the selection down to a final shortlist was set to be a challenging one. In reaching our decision we continually kept in mind that the prize is awarded in recognition of an outstanding book dealing with the history of science published in English during one of the three calendar years immediately preceding the year of the competition (in the present case 2015, 2016 and 2017).


The Committee’s final and unanimous choice is Anita Guerrini’s The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris, published by The University of Chicago Press in 2015.

The Courtiers’ Anatomists opens with the deceptively simple declaration that “This book is about bodies, human and animal, dead and living: particular bodies in a particular place and time.” Committee members were immediately struck by two complementary strands running throughout the chapters: the masterly construction of interconnecting local contexts in 17th-century Paris and the rigorous exploration of the changing practices of dissection and natural history within those contexts. In Guerrini’s story, animals are pushed to the center of the stage, thus locating it within current debates about humans and non-human bodies. Taking a long view perspective from Herophilus to contemporary Animal Rights, Guerrini deftly demonstrates the importance of historical studies in our understanding of current controversies, in this case debates on the values of science and society.

Dissecting decomposing animals at court informed French courtiers. This book offers us the proof. Guerrini reminds us that throughout the 17th century anatomists continued to disagree about how to bring together into a fresh synthesis the new structures and the non-Galenic physiological processes that dissection had revealed. At the same time, the animal informed a growing understanding of human animals, despite religious distinctions linked to questions of the human soul.

Crucial to the author’s contextual methodology, the book opens with a nuanced geography of Paris anatomy in the 17th century. Thus “the juxtaposition of physicians, surgeons, dead bodies, and living and dead animals was an everyday occurrence in Paris, and courtiers were not isolated from this. … Seventeenth-century people were not unfamiliar with blood and death.” Moreover, the book’s grounding in and around the streets of Paris ensures that historical actors, familiar and unfamiliar, take on the persona of living, social beings. Thus although we encounter individuals integral to traditional accounts of the “scientific revolution” (Harvey, Descartes and Huygens for example), these figures appear not as abstractions but as humans subject to all the contingencies of the city with its everyday sights, sounds and smells of life and death.

In addition to her brilliant engagements with primary documents, Guerrini makes critical use of the massive scholarly literature on 17th-century natural philosophy, natural history and medicine to mold a subtle and compelling narrative of the role of dissection in the shaping of experimental knowledge in the period. Among numerous historical insights, she challenges conventional assumptions that the primary hall-mark of 17th-century scientific activity was doing rather than reading. Books, she argues, “retained central roles not only in recording and modeling knowledge but also in producing it; reading could constitute doing,” in particular when it came to such bloody and dirty businesses like vivi- and dissection. As vividly shown in later chapters, publication of illustrated texts on natural history and anatomy “made concrete the discoveries of the age and allowed for their replication and expansion. … Books and later journals situated anatomy within the broader cultural framework of the Republic of Letters.”

Central to Guerrini’s book are themes of display and spectacle, most strikingly manifested in the context of a royal universe. Menageries, the French Academy and animal symbolism all fed into glorification of the king. Derived from the Academy’s researches, the lavish Memoires pour server a l’histoire naturelle des animaux in particular “provided evidence of Louis XIV’s gloire in several ways: as a work of [fine]art, a display of his power, an imaginarium of his menageries, and a contribution to the new science.”

Guerrini awards the French court a much deserved significance in epistemic debates, thus rescuing it from its reduction to the epitome of enlightened European debauchery. By choosing an episodic approach (rather than chronologies), Guerrini also situates this court and France into important scientific and intellectual genealogies shedding light on the crucial links between  comparative anatomy and natural history/philosophy of this time.

The Courtiers’ Anatomists is a marvelously accessible, yet magisterial work, that offers an historical model, rich in insights, not only to 17th-century scholars of the history of the sciences but also to historians of other periods and places. The Committee felt it should be required reading for everyone interested in the cultural history of 17th-century France, the history of natural history, the emergence of the experimental sciences, the reception (and rejection) of Cartesian mechanics, the roles of mechanical philosophies in the life sciences, and the rethinking of historical perspectives on “scientific revolution.”

Dagmar Schäfer, Elaine Leong, Crosbie Smith (Chair)

View Guerrini’s other works:

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See Guerrini’s profile at Oregon State University.

Follow Anita on Twitter: @Nickytheprof

Check out Anita’s personal website here.