Chapter 1: PromisesMy dear fellow, life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. —Arthur Conan Doyle,
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Some fifty years before the great fire, Olof Rudbeck had arrived as a young student at Uppsala University. This was in the cold and dark winter of 1648, just in time for the enthusiastic celebrations that would soon erupt on the Continent, marking the signing of the Peace of Westphalia and an end, it was hoped, to thirty years of the most vicious fighting that Europe had ever known. War, famine, plague, and plunder had decimated the populations, spreading misery everywhere the armies marched. Now the clang of church bells and the clatter of court banquets might replace the roar of cannon and the cries of suffering. Musketeers fired joyous salvoes into the air, and soaring bonfires were lit to commemorate the news. The festivities were especially lively in Sweden, already “drunk with victory and bloated with booty.”
Uppsala University was at this time the jewel in the crown of the Swedish kingdom. Although the university had fallen into disuse a few years after its establishment in 1477, the state had realized its enormous potential as a training ground for the new Protestant Reformation and reopened it with royal flair. Young people came from all corners of the realm to learn the theology and acquire the intellectual rigor required to enter the Church. The university also attracted the scions of the great aristocratic houses, sons of the landed and titled families who waged Sweden’s wars, administered the empire, and served the Crown in countless other capacities. King Gustavus Adolphus, the famed “Lion of the North,” had envisioned just such a role for Uppsala University. He had endowed it with the means to realize it as well, even filling its empty bookshelves with many magnificent collections looted from an almost unbroken string of victories on the battlefield.
Rudbeck was neither a nobleman nor an aspirant to a career in the Church, though he was thrilled all the same to enter the halls of Scandinavia’s oldest university. This was understandably an exciting place for a young man. Despite repeated efforts of the authorities, students flocked to the taverns as much as to the lecture halls. Entertainment options ranged from dice to duels. It was already becoming common for students to carry swords, and sometimes even pistols. New brothels opened to meet the increasing demand, and other institutions emerged to serve the changing times, such as the university prison. Housed in the cellars of the main university building, the prison was rarely unoccupied.
Rudbeck’s interests, however, lay elsewhere. Ever since he was a boy, he had enjoyed finding his own way. He sang, he drew, he played the lute, he even made his own toys, including a wooden clock with a bell to strike the hour. Adventurous and independent, Rudbeck yearned to experience the world for himself. In fact, as a ten-year-old, Rudbeck had eagerly tried to follow his older brothers to Uppsala. His father, however, would not allow it, convinced that he was not mature enough to handle the freedom of the university.
Standing tall and giving the impression of no small confidence, Rudbeck was a spirited, highly impressionable youth with short dark hair, broad shoulders, and a barrel chest. He walked, or rather strode, with the air of someone who fearlessly plunged into his latest passion. His imagination, at this time, was fired by the study of anatomy. This was an especially attractive subject for bright, ambitious students. Kings and queens had showered favors on the talented few they chose as royal physicians, and indeed the newly established post of court physician had raised the status of the doctor from its previously undistinguished connotations. Enthusiasm for medicine as an intellectual pursuit peaked when an Englishman named William Harvey published a small Latin treatise in 1628.
Harvey was one of those elite court physicians, serving King James I of England. In his classic De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis (Dissertation on the Movement of the Heart and Blood)
, Harvey claimed that the heart was a muscle that pumped the blood at regular intervals, or pulses. The vital fluid circulated throughout the body, with the arteries carrying it away from the heart and the veins returning it there. With these propositions, Harvey had revolutionized the study of medicine. One Oxford doctor and fellow of the Royal Society claimed that these findings were more significant than the discovery of America because they threw centuries of medical belief into uncertainty. Great physicians everywhere now wanted to confirm, refute, or refine Harvey’s propositions.
It was in this climate that Olof Rudbeck entered the medical school at Uppsala. His head was full of ideas, his curiosity almost boundless. He could not wait to be turned loose to investigate for himself the mysterious invisible world underneath the skin. But unfortunately the university had very little to offer. Rudbeck’s supervisor was too busy for him, preferring instead to spend time in the alchemy lab, trying to change various substances into gold. More challenging still, it was difficult to gain access to the necessary equipment. When acquiring human bodies for observation and dissection was a difficult task even for a professor, what could a student do?
One crisp autumn day in 1650, Rudbeck strolled down to the market, a bustling square jammed with carts, stalls, and stands. There were stacks of cheese, slabs of butter, and fish, gutted and stretched out. Gloves of fine goat-hair and warm wolfskin coats also competed for attention. Rudbeck’s eye, however, fell on two women, rough and splattered with blood, as they butchered a calf. There, in the raw dead flesh, Rudbeck saw something peculiar. There was a milklike substance that seemed to emanate from somewhere in the chest, not so delicately split open on the old bench. His curiosity was piqued, and an idea suddenly struck him. With the enthusiasm of someone who had long enjoyed taking things apart and tinkering to see how they worked, Rudbeck asked if he could cut on the carcass.
The women must have been surprised, to say the least, at this young man’s request. With their permission granted, Rudbeck borrowed the knife, forced the thick, lifeless aorta to the side, and then separated it from the surrounding red mess of muscle and tissue. He followed that curious milk-like substance along, finding a sort of vessel or duct that carried a colorless liquid. By the time he traced it back to the liver, the dark purplish brown organ undoubtedly destined for dinner fare, he knew he was onto something big.
Rudbeck had discovered nothing less than the lymphatic system. The colorless liquid was lymph, a tissue-cleansing fluid vital to the functioning of the body’s immune system. Among other things, it absorbs nutrients, collects fats, and prevents harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. He not only discovered this system but also correctly explained its functions in the body.
This episode clearly shows a resourcefulness that would long be a hallmark of Rudbeck’s approach to problem-solving. As William Harvey improved his knowledge of anatomy by investigating the deer bagged by King James and the royal hunting parties, Rudbeck the student relied on the successful meat trade of Uppsala’s butchers. Over the next two years, probably working in a dingy makeshift shed by the river, Rudbeck set his dissection table with a veritable smorgasbord of discarded delicacies. He cut, nipped, hacked, and examined, performing hundreds of dissections and vivisections to refine his practical understanding of the body’s cleansing mechanisms.
Rudbeck’s explanation of the lymphatic system was indeed a major discovery in the annals of modern medicine—the first, in fact, to come from a Swedish scientist. It was also a fulfillment of William Harvey’s theories of the circulation of the blood, which were then still fiercely contested. In distant Uppsala, the young Rudbeck, not even twenty years old, had confirmed one of the greatest medical discoveries of the day.
Word of this remarkable student spread quickly through the Swedish kingdom, and soon reached its colorful queen. Like Greta Garbo, who played her in the film, Queen Christina has intrigued historians just as she fascinated her contemporaries. She was young, barely twenty-six years old, and somewhat shorter than medium height, with thick, curly, dark brown hair often tied with a simple black ribbon. Her voice was soft but deep, and her eyes piercing. Whenever she was displeased, it soon became abundantly clear, the queen’s face darkened like a “thunder cloud.” Eight years of power had accustomed her to doing exactly as she wished. Controversy, though, was never far away.
Rumors had long circulated that the Swedish queen was a nymphomaniac, a lesbian, a man in disguise, or perhaps a hermaphrodite. After all, when she was born, the midwife first took her for a boy, and even told the king that he had a new son. The hermaphrodite belief was dispelled only when a team of international experts, restoring her grave in the 1920s, decided to take a look. The queen, they confirmed, had indeed been a woman.
Despite all differences of opinion, her admirers and critics agreed on one point: Queen Christina attracted some of the best and brightest of the day. During her short reign, a motley collection of cavaliers, ladies, libertines, and scholars streamed to her court. Perhaps the most famous of these was René Descartes. There was probably no thinker of the day more idolized than this French philosopher.
Indeed, when he arrived in Stockholm, Descartes soon found himself taxed by Queen Christina’s enthusiasm for early-morning lessons in the new thought, and equally burdensome demands to compose ballets for entertainment in the evening. The Frenchman, overworked and exhausted, succumbed to an unusually cold winter in Christina’s unusually cold castle. He died in February 1650, after shivering through five miserable months at court (though his skull, it turned out, stayed in the country almost two hundred years longer; it had been secretly removed and replaced with a substitute, and was not reunited with his body in France until 1821).
It was now Olof Rudbeck’s turn to come to Queen Christina’s court. She was much impressed by his anatomical work and sent an invitation for the student to present his discoveries to her in person. On a beautiful spring day in 1652, Rudbeck arrived at the royal castle in Uppsala.
Set majestically on the highest hilltop, the castle overlooked the town barely a stone’s cast away from the cathedral. Construction of the castle, begun by King Gustav Vasa in the 1540s, was still unfinished. Only two sides of the desired square had been completed, and the surrounding hillside was overgrown with weeds. On the inside, though, the castle was decorated with treasures including paintings, tapestries, statues, and almost anything else of value that Swedish armies could pack up in chests and carry back to the north.
Like many distinguished guests before him, Rudbeck marched up to the castle, climbed the stone steps, and entered the great hall. As the court looked on, the twenty-one-year-old demonstrated his medical discovery. Queen Christina was dazzled. She never had to tap her fan in impatience, or play distractedly with her spaniels. She just sat transfixed on her crimson velvet cushion with eyes aglow at the spectacle. The courtiers saw a new rising star, and the queen did too. By the end of the day she had offered Rudbeck a royal scholarship to continue his studies at Leiden University. He left the castle, his ears ringing with praise and head spinning with anticipation.
Sweden was, at this time, one of the most powerful countries in the world. Despite its small population, thinly scattered throughout the kingdom, Sweden had burst upon the scene in 1630, the year of Rudbeck’s birth, with some dazzling victories in the Thirty Years’ War. King Gustavus Adolphus’s army was praised as the best in the world, and his advanced, modernized bureaucracy was, as one observer put it, the envy of France. By the end of the war in 1648, and Rudbeck’s eighteenth birthday, Sweden had emerged with France as the guarantor of Europe’s peace.
Swedish territory then encircled the Baltic Sea and its sweet-smelling pine forests, its flat, marshy heaths, and its foggy pebble beaches. The blue and gold Swedish flag was raised in Finland, northern Germany, the modern Baltic states, and as far away as Cabo Corso on the African Gold Coast. There was even a “New Sweden” confidently planted in America on the Delaware River, including today’s Trenton and Philadelphia.
Rudbeck’s country had never been more powerful or more influential. Exports boomed, and its merchants, at first mostly Dutch immigrants, dominated some of the most lucrative trades of the day. Sweden was Europe’s unrivaled producer of copper and iron, and of the manufactured products that relied on these materials, such as cannon, cannonballs, and lightweight, quick-loading muskets. Lands in its Baltic dominion produced timber, hemp, flax, pitch, and tar, no small advantage in a warlike world just coming to appreciate the advantages of sea power. One Danish historian has compared the Baltic Sea in the seventeenth century to the Persian Gulf in the twentieth: though much of the region was undeveloped and remote, it was the source of scarce raw materials absolutely central to the functioning of the world at the time.
The capital of the kingdom, Stockholm, had grown rich controlling this trade, already boasting a stunning panorama of buildings, bridges, and water that would later earn it the name “Venice of the North.” The docks were bustling, too, with men unloading crates into the warehouses along the seafront. Horses drawing carriages clip-clopped down the cobblestone lanes, passing the fine buildings, the noble estates, and the brick churches with copper spires. Down in the center of the capital, tucked away in the Old Town, stood the Stockholm Banco, preparing, in just a few years, to issue the world’s first modern paper currency. All told, diligence and decadence went together in creating the period Swedish historians call the “age of greatness.”
But the small wooden huts clustering in the shadows of the towering mansions were reminders of another side to Sweden’s imperial age. For every laced-up, velvet-clad courtier enjoying Italian perfumes, there were many others who toiled under brutal conditions. As many as 90 percent of the population were peasants, squeezing out a tenuous existence on small homesteads, or bound under steep feudal obligations on large manors. Less fortunate still were the many victims of the recent wars. Armless veterans begged in the streets, and legions of orphans roamed in search of food. In desperation, many women became prostitutes, and some people joined the rogues hiding out in forests, preying upon the secluded roadways.
Olof Rudbeck had grown up in this environment of power and poverty. His home was Västerås, then one of the largest towns in the country, and visibly prospering from the “great quantities of copper and iron, digged [sic] out of the mines.” At the very center stood the cathedral, a restored Gothic structure with a long, tapering spire rising high above its surroundings, and in fact, at that time, the tallest in Sweden. The town also had a castle and even its own curious “wizard” who once, it was said, “made wings and flew, but broke one of his legs.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Finding Atlantis by David King. Copyright © 2005 by David King. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.