The Unsolved Mystery of Descartes' Skull

Medscape Staff

October 26, 2021

A new study casts doubt on the long-held belief that the philosopher's skull was interred with his body, suggesting instead it was subject to the antiquated practice of "skull blasting."

What to know:

  • French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher René Descartes died in 1650 while in Sweden. His body remained there until 1666, when it was brought to Paris to be buried. During the period of the French Revolution, it was discovered that the skull was missing.

  • The leading belief is that the skull was removed in Sweden and sold, and that it was then handed down to various collectors before being rediscovered in the 19th century and brought to his grave in Paris.

  • However, a new study suggests that this skull is not Descartes' and that a skull fragment held by Lund University in Sweden is from the true skull of Descartes.

  • According to the investigators, after Descartes' skull was removed, it was subjected to "skull blasting," an old-fashioned practice of using pressure to separate a skull into fragments so that they could be sold to multiple buyers.

  • Methods to separate the bones in the skull were traditionally used in anatomic study. The Beauchêne method, which involved soaking or boiling the skull until the bones separated, could preserve delicate bone structures better than skull blasting.

  • Although not all are convinced by the new theory, the researchers are confident that historical evidence shows the intact skull is not that of Descartes.

This is a summary of the article, "Was René Descartes a Victim of Skull Blasting?," published by Atlas Obscura on October 25. The full article can be found on atlasobscura.com.

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