More than 300 years after René Descartes’ death in 1650, new evidence about his health has just come to light: by using computed tomography to scan his skull, forensic expert Philippe Charlier found that the father of modern philosophy likely had a tumor on his sinus.
The significance of this discovery is not clear; the tumor did not appear to diminish Descartes’ genius or prevent him from working. It also did not cause his death—he reportedly passed away, at 54, from pneumonia. And since there is no evidence that he displayed any symptoms associated with this condition, such as weepy eyes, excess mucus, and an altered sense of smell, it is reasonable to assume that Descartes was not aware of the tumor.
The most interesting aspect of these findings may be the skull itself, as well as its grim posthumous fate. Sixteen years after Descartes’ death and burial in Sweden, his remains were exhumed with the purpose of returning them to his native France. Before the body could be repatriated, however, one of the Swedish guards supervising the exhumation removed Descartes’ skull as a memento of the great thinker.
During the next 150 years, the head bounced, in the manner of speaking, throughout Europe, bought and sold like a commodity. Various owners engraved their names on the skull, as though owning the part of Descartes that used to “house” his immense intellect was a source of pride. We have no historical records that reveal what exactly these people used the artifact for—did they display it in their curio cabinet, stash it away, or recreate Hamlet’s soliloquy to Yorick’s skull?
Be it as it may, the missing skull eventually resurfaced in 1821 and has since been held by a Paris museum. In the meantime, French historians have been squabbling over where the head should be heading: stay where it is, be transferred to a school Descartes attended, or be reunited with the rest of his body, buried in the Parisian church of Saint-Germain des Près.
We can only hope that Descartes’ belief in the separation of mind and body was not an eerie premonition of the indignities that would be inflicted on him after his death.