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Edward Tyson and the “chain of being”

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Tyson's chimpanzee (Natural History Museum)

This year (2008) sees the 300th anniversary of the death of Edward Tyson, a distinguished Enlightenment physician who has been dubbed the father of comparative anatomy.

The dorsal scent gland of the Mexican warthog, the opossum (with a focus on its peculiar reproductive system), the shark and the lumpfish — all these came under his dissecting knife. He also applied himself to the anatomy of the rattlesnake, the broad tapeworm and the roundworm of man.

Pathology and morbid anatomy were of particular interest to him. He pioneered purposeful post-mortem examinations to try to determine the cause of disease and to seek cures. He described monstrous development and abnormal births.

By comparing the suprarenal glands of children and adults he established that children are not simply smaller versions of adults.

In 1680, he described the anatomy of the “porpess” (actually a dolphin) and discovered that it was a mammal. He saw it as the transitional link between fish and land quadrupeds.

Tyson was the founder of primatology. In 1698, he dissected a young chimpanzee (a “pygmie”) and found it to be a distinct species and he believed it was the “missing link” in the ascent of man from apes. The skeleton of Tyson’s chimpanzee is on display to this day in the Natural History Museum, London.

Tyson stressed the underlying structural unity of nature and the continuity of animality and humanity, organised around the Great Chain of Being.

Tyson’s gifts were not confined to the dissecting bench. He had a busy medical practice and, in 1684, he was appointed physician to the Bethlem Hospital in London, one of the world’s oldest psychiatric hospitals.

He later served as governor and he is credited with changing the hospital from a zoo of sorts to a place intended to help the inmates. He introduced female nurses there and established an outpatients’ clinic for former inmates.

Tyson and his work deserve to be rescued from the obscurity into which they have fallen. His work was of remarkable scientific merit and his comparisons proved so accurate that they aided naturalists 150 years later.

Tyson’s views resonate with those of Charles Darwin (1809–82) and it is interesting that they had a common ancestor in Richard Foley (1580–1657), a renowned Staffordshire ironmaster.

Edward Tyson died suddenly in 1708 at the age of 57.

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