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Petrus Camper

Peter, Pieter, or usually Petrus Camper (May 11, 1722 in Leiden – April 7, 1789 in The Hague) was a Dutch anatomist, anthropologist and a naturalist, as well as a furniture maker, a sculptor and a patron of art. One of the first to interest himself to comparative anatomy and paleontology, he also invented the measure of the "facial angle", aimed at measuring the intelligence of animals and human beings in an attempt to "scientifically" demonstrate racist theories.  

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Studies and teaching

As the son of a local minister and a brilliant alumnus, he studied in the University of Leiden sciences, philosophy and drawing. His professors included Pieter van Musschenbroek (1669-1721) and Willem Jacob 's Gravesande (1688-1742) for physics and mathematics, Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) and Hieronym David Gaubius (1705-1780) for medicine. Petrus Camper became doctor in medicine and philosophy at the same day at 24. After both his parents died then traveled to Prussia, England, France and Switzerland. He was offered sundry professorships, being first named professor of philosophy, anatomy and surgery in 1750 in the University of Franeker.

Camper married the young and rich widow of a burgomaster from Harlingen and on who he had a crush for some time. 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 retired five years later to dedicate himself to scientifical research and lived on her property, just outside Franeker. Three years later he chose, to accept the chair of anatomy, surgery and botancis at the University of Groningen. Camper started a surgical clinic and showed drawings to illustrate his eloquent lectures, before retiring in 1773. He was appointed as an (orangist) burgomaster of Workum and in 1787 as a member of the state council of the Dutch Republic.

Among his many works, he studied osteology of birds and discovered the presence of air in the inner cavities of birds' skeletons. He also interested himself to the anatomy of the orangutan, demonstrating against contemporary theories that it was a different specie from the human being, and not simply a "degenerate" type of human. Petrus Camper published memoirs on hearing of fishes, the best form of shoes, rinderpest, rabids, building of dikes, etc. Petrus Camper was an associate of the French Academy of Sciences and had an eulogy in his honour composed by Nicolas de Condorcet and Félix Vicq-d'Azyr.

Comparative anatomy

One of the first scholar to study comparative anatomy, Petrus Camper demonstrated the principle of correlation in all organisms by the mechanical exercise he called a "metamorphosis". In his 1778 lecture, "On the Points of Similarity between the Human Species, Quadrupeds, Birds, and Fish; with Rules for Drawing, founded on this Similarity," he metamorphosed a horse into a human being, thus showing the similarity between all vertebrates. Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772-1884) theorized this in 1795 as the "unity of organic composition," the influence of which is perceptible in all his subsequent writings; nature, he observed, presents us with only one plan of construction, the same in principle, but varied in its accessory parts. Camper's metamorphoses which demonstrated this "unity of Plan" greatly impressed 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 [1]

"Facial angle"

Petrus Camper is also known for his theory of the "facial angle" in connection with intelligence. The measuring of the facial angle claimed to determine intelligence among various species of animals. According to this 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. Measuring this angle was thought to determine the intelligence of animals and human beings. One of the founder of scientific racism theories, he claimed that antique statues presented an angle of 90°, Europeans of 80°, Black people of 70° and the orangutan of 58°, thus displaying a hierarchic view of mankind, based on a decadent conception of history. These scientific racist researches were 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) [2].


Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) praised his "genius eye" but criticized him for keeping himself to simple sketches ("Camper porta, pour ainsi dire en passant, le coup d'œil du génie sur une foule d'objets intéressants, mais presque tous ses travaux ne furent que des ébauches"). Petrus Camper's main works were:

  • Démonstrations anatomicx-pathologicœ, Amsterdam, 1760-1762 ;
  • Dissertation sur les différences des traits du visage ;
  • Discours sur l'art de juger les passions de l'homme par les traits de son visage ;
  • Dissertation sur les variétés naturelles de l'espèce humaine.[3]

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. [Nederland's Patriciaat, Vol. 13 (1923)].

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


  • Demonstrationes anatomico- pathologicae [1760-1762]
  • On the Best Form of Shoe
  • 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 him self.
  • Works on natural history, a translation of Camper's work, published by Hendrik Jansen in 1803 in three in-octavo volumes.


  1. ^ See Miriam Claude Meijer, ""Petrus Camper's Protean Performances: The Metamorphoses" here (with a drawing of Camper's animated metamorphose) - URL accessed on February 28, 2007 (English)
  2. ^ Ann Thomson, Issues at stake in eighteenth-century racial classification, Cromohs, 8 (2003): 1-20 (English)
  3. ^ « Petrus Camper », in the 1878 edition of Marie-Nicolas Bouillet and Alexis Chassang (dir.), Dictionnaire universel d'histoire et de géographie, 1878.

See also

This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopædia.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Petrus_Camper". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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