The Strange Case of Joannes Lethaeus

Nicholas Tulp

Nicolaes Tulp

Educated at the University of Leiden, Nicolaes Tulp became a well known and influential member of the  Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, where he held the position of official city anatomist. While today he is most well known for his appearance in the Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (now in the Mauritshuis museum), he was also known for his involvement in creating  the first pharmacopoeia for Amsterdam, the Pharmacopoea Amstelredamensis (1636) and his book on his medical observations, Observationes Medicae (1641).

It is in the Observationes medicae, that we can find the following story:

Observations, Book IV, Chapter 31. Wherein a patient cuts a stone out of himself.

Joannes Lethaeus, a Smith, a courageous man, and very astute, who had already been treated twice by a stonecutter, desired so little to be treated a third time by such a man among his daily trials and repeated slayings, that he decided any wild adventure was more attractive to him than subjecting himself to the knife of the stonecutter ever again. Convincing himself that his health could only improve, and having decided that no one but himself would cut into his flesh, he sent his wife to the fish market, which she didn’t mind doing. Only letting his brother help him, he instructed him to pull aside his scrotum while he grabbed the stone in his left hand and cut bravely in the perineum with a knife he had secretly prepared, and by standing again and again managed to make the wound long enough to allow the stone to pass. To get the stone out was more difficult, and he had to stick two fingers into the wound on either side to remove it with leveraged force, and it finally popped out of hiding with an explosive noise and tearing of the bladder.

Now the more courageous than careful operation was completed, and the enemy that had declared war on him was safely on the ground, he sent for a healer who sewed up the two sides of the wound together, and the opening that he had cut himself, and properly bound it up; the flesh of which grew so happily that there was no small hope of health , but the wound was too big, and the bladder too torn, not to have ulcers forming.

But this stone weighing 4 ounces and the size of a hen’s egg was a wonder how it came out with the help of one hand, without the proper tools, and then from the patient himself, whose greatest help was courage and impatience embedded in a truly impenetrable faith which caused a brave deed as none other. So was he no less than those whose deeds are related in the old scriptures. Sometimes daring helps when reason doesn’t.


From: Geneeskundige Waarnemingen van Nikolaas Tulp. Oud Burgermeester der stad Amsterdam. Naar den zelfden Druk uit het Latyn vertaalt. Te Leiden, By Juriaan Wishoff. 1740

This article became the basis of the painting  by Carel van Savoyen (ca. 1621-1665) Jan Jansz de Doot (1655) which literally translates as Jan Jansz  ‘the Dead’. How long he survived after his self-operation is not known.

Jan Jansz de Dood by Carel van Savoyen (1655)

Jan Jansz de Dood by Carel van Savoyen (1655)

(The first two images and the translation of the Joannes Lethaeus article can be found at Wikipedea. The image of the painting by Savoyen is from the  Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren)


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