TODAY IN BERLIN: NOVEMBER 29th
Image: Theatrum Anatomicum Berolinense by Ferdinand Gottfried Leygebe (1830) – the particularly tall skeleton on the left can be the one of the King´s “giant”.
A big day, if a little spine-chilling one: on November 29th, 1713 Berlin witnessed its first public human autopsy history. The procedure, which until then had often been performed at the cemeteries or in make-shift mortuaries and which for mostly religious reasons met with quite hostile reception within the society, could now be conducted with scientific decorum within the world of academia. The actual reason why all this became possible was the King´s – Friedrich Wilhelm I´s – passion for his soldiers, especially those very tall ones, whom he wished to keep in good health or, should that prove impossible, at least have properly dissected and sometimes even preserved.
This first post-mortem examination was performed by a court doctor and the man commissioned by the monarch to set up the original anatomical institute in the Prussian capital, Christian Maximilian Spener. He dissected the corpse of the King´s chamber servant, a victim of tuberculosis, donated by the monarch. The autopsy was performed on a dissection table placed at the centre of the round Theatrum anatomicum Berolinense, a high-ceilinged room with six round tiers of benches for the public and students, located inside the corner tower of the old Marstall – the Royal Stables.
In 1725 King Friedrich Wilhelm I, also known as Soldatenkönig (Soldier King) – not so much because of his military talents or glorious achievements but due to his obsession with all things military and with tall, good-looking, young men from his private “Potsdam Giants Guard” in particular – ordered one of his beloved Lange Kerls (Long Lads) dissected and his skeleton kept as a memento and a learning aid. When alive, the nearly 2.35-metre tall soldier almost certainly never had to go into battle: at that size and with the nasty scoliosis which gave his spine an unhealthy-looking curve, he would not have been able to fight well even if wanted.
Instead, along with the remaining 3,200 over 6-foot tall men from all over Europe he was forced to march in front of the king at the monarch´s pleasure. The parade was usually led by the regimental mascot, a bear. The king, a rotund little man of 160-centimetres, loved these little performances so dearly that he was always eager to organise them for each and every one of his important guests. However, as a man of great ambition but relatively little brains, he hardly noticed the mocking comments and the smirks his ardour for the lanky lads caused among the guests.
It was this ardour that had the King order a post-mortem of the poor, scoliosis-ridden giant and made him have every bone from his skeleton boiled and prepared in the anatomical kitchen at the Marstall. This Langer Kerl was only one of many who ended up as exhibition pieces. Today, he is one of the only two giant skeletons still held at the Medical Museum of the Charité hospital in Berlin.