Q&A with Anita Guerrini, 2018 Pfizer Awardee

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Editor’s note: Since 1958, Pfizer Inc., has sponsored a book award at HSS, which stipulates that the winning book must be principally a history of science, appropriate given that we are a society for precisely this community. The 2018 award winner was Anita Guerrini’s The Courtiers’ Anatomists: Animals and Humans in Louis XIV’s Paris (The University of Chicago Press, 2015), which brings to glorious life, science in the time of the famed Sun King of France, Louis the Fourteenth. Details of what caught the prize committee’s eye appear on a separate page in the HSS website. Here, we invited Anita to share some thoughts and insights with us.

Please give our members your personal version of what this book is about—something other than what Amazon or the Pfizer Award announcement has already told us.

I wanted to write a book about how important animals were to the practice of the New Science—both as experimental objects and as subjects of study in natural history. Originally, I wanted to do a pan-European book on this topic but that turned out to be too huge a project, and the French material was both really interesting and not written about much. Along the way, Paris became a major character in the book as well, and I spent time walking around the city and figuring out where places were—the site of the Church of the Holy Innocents, for example, is completely erased and is now part of the Les Halles/Pompidou Center complex. The places where dissection took place became very important to me and that’s why I included two maps in chapter 1.

To most lay-people, Louis XIV’s court is the stuff of high adventure—The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask come to mind. How much of that spirit did you find in the course of your research. And how much of it makes its way into scholarly books such as yours?

D’Artagnan, the leader of the three musketeers, actually makes a couple of appearances in the book. In 1661 he arrested the government minister Nicolas Fouquet—who had been the patron of the anatomist Jean Pecquet—and a dozen years later he died at the siege of Maastricht, at the same time as the anatomist and surgeon Louis Gayant; I open chapter 5 with d’Artagnan’s death. I tried to convey the lively cultural life of Paris; my favorite scene in the book is when the Perrault brothers and Charles Le Brun, the court artist, attend the opera on a January evening in 1674. But I also tried to convey the everyday violence and brutality of seventeenth-century urban life, and how that violence intersected with the practice of human and animal dissection. I’m not sure that is high adventure, and the wars and spying that Dumas chronicles do take a back seat in my work. But the intrigues surrounding Louis XIV’s court are certainly in there.

The relationship between humans and animals appears to be subject of enduring interest for you, evident not only in The Courtier’s Anatomists but also in your older book, Animal and Human Experimentation. What do you find particularly compelling about this particular subject?

When I started to write about the history of animals in early modern science—my first article on that was in 1989—there was very little in the historiography that focused on the animals themselves. They were mentioned only in passing, as instruments. I wanted to understand how animals came to be so important in early modern science, how people felt about dissecting live animals, since most people did not believe Descartes’s claim that they could not feel pain (in fact, I’m not sure even Descartes believed that), and what people learned from them. The intersection of natural history, including the discovery of all kinds of animals previously unknown in Europe, with the kind of experimentation introduced by Harvey has fascinated me for a long time. All these cool new animals, let’s cut them up and see what makes them tick. That was the Paris Academy’s project from the 1660s to the 1690s. Perrault and Co., speculated a bit about habitat and what he called moeurs or way of life, but these animals had been wrested from their natural settings and brought to Versailles or Vincennes where they lived distinctly un-natural lives, mostly rather short. They did learn a lot about these animals, so much so that Buffon and Daubenton simply copied passages from the Academy’s Histoire des animaux (1671-76) in Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1749-88).

From left: HSS President Bernie Lightman, 2018 Pfizer Winner Anita Guerrini, and Pfizer Vice President, Head of Reputation, Policy and Research & Development Communications Ed Harnaga

From left: HSS President Bernie Lightman, 2018 Pfizer Winner Anita Guerrini, and Pfizer Vice President, Head of Reputation, Policy and Research & Development Communications Ed Harnaga

What about this book do you personally find memorable?

It was so much fun to write. Once I figured out what it was about, or as I tell my students, once I found the story—and that took a few years—it just flowed. Also there were so many great personalities, including Claude Perrault the late bloomer, Pecquet the alcoholic genius, Charles Perrault the operator (in the sense of manipulating careers), the crafty Colbert. And of course Joseph-Guichard Duverney, the most brilliant anatomist of his era.

Looking back what aspect did you find the most challenging or difficult?

Reading seventeenth-century handwriting! The minutes of the Academy are, amazingly, all available online (thank you Gallica), but the handwriting of the secretaries and amanuenses over the years ranged from beautiful to impenetrable. In addition, both Duverney and Claude Perrault had atrocious handwriting.

It had been four years now since the book was published, and a little over a year since the Pfizer award. What insights can you share about the book’s trajectory? What’s next in the pipeline for you, especially now that you’re retired?

It has received some very nice reviews, for which I’m grateful, and it is continuing to sell, if at the usual snail’s pace of academic books. I like to think it’s brought more attention to dissection as a central activity of seventeenth-century science, and to the role of Paris as a site of science. So much attention has been given to London and the Royal Society, and so I hope my book has served as a bit of a corrective. Next in the pipeline? Retirement for me, as for many of my cohort, means more time to write. I always have many smaller projects, mostly on environmental history and the history of food. My next book project is on early modern discoveries of fossil bones that were for a time considered to be the bones of human giants. It’s about storytelling, language, national identities, and the intersections of anatomy, archaeology, and paleontology. There is also some material about actual human giants. This will be pan-European, with material from France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany, stretching my linguistic abilities to their limits and beyond. There’s even a bit about North America near the end.

What do you think the award committee’s stipulation that the Pfizer award be focused on history of science—while topics in medicine or technology are by no means out of bounds, the prize does focus on the scientific aspect of these fields—does for the discipline?

Do you think that such an action is a good thing or too restrictive? I think the answer to this depends on what you think about disciplinary boundaries. History of medicine and history of technology certainly overlap with history of science, but they also have their own distinct historiographies. So I tend to think that focusing on science is justified (and I see my hedging language here, because I’m not quite certain). Of course there is the age-old question of “what is science?”

What is your advice for someone embarking on their first book?

Don’t be discouraged. I would be embarrassed to reveal how many times my first monograph on the Scottish physician George Cheyne was rejected by publishers, but let’s just say it took six years from when I finished it to when it appeared. But then someone recently came up to me at the HSS meeting in Utrecht and told me what a great book it was. So, believe in yourself and your project. But don’t reject criticism, either. I have had some great external readers over the years and they have given me good advice, and the ones who did not like something forced me to see my work in a different way.