The Beauty of Anatomy

da Vinci, study of the heart of an ox, 1513

da Vinci, study of the heart of an ox, 1513

It was a pleasure to watch the first the first episode of The Beauty of Anatomy, on BBC 4, and I look forward to the rest! Delighted to see two of my favourite history-of-medicine and art-of-medicine people, that is, Richard Barnett and Eleanor Crook, respectively, have contributed to the series.

Watching this episode reminded me that I was consulted for the series ages ago, with a phone call from a producer who contacted me because of my review of “Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist,” the wonderful exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, in 2012.

I open the review describing one of Leonardo’s most stunning experiments, which shows what a brilliant bricoleur he was. The full article is here, but this was the experiment:

In 1512, Leonardo da Vinci set out to clarify the function of a specific, bulbous part of the heart. He injected molten wax into an ox heart to make a cast. This was the second time in medical history that wax casting had been used: the first time was between 1504 – 1507, when Leonardo came up with the idea to inject the ventricles of the brain, a fragile organ which was easily damaged in dissection.

From the waxwork heart, Leonardo made a gypsum mould. Then he blew glass into the mould to make a transparent model of the heart. Through this, he pumped water with a suspension of grass seed. It showed the vortices that led Leonardo to posit a function for this part of the heart – the aortic valve – not mentioned again until 1912. However, the function of the aortic valve – “that these eddies were vital in closing the valve when blood flow ceased after each beat of the heart” – was not confirmed until MRI scans in the 1980s. This was Leonardo’s “last and greatest anatomical campaign”. 

The BBC producer who phoned me about my review asked me “whether Leonardo’s experiment with the ox heart could be reproduced”.

The question rather floored me.

On one hand, I said, well, one man did it in 1512, so, um, yes, of course it could be reproduced. But what helped me realise just how brilliant and skilled Leonardo was, was thinking through the reproduction of the experiment, and discussing it with this producer.

Because to do it today, the BBC would need an anatomist or a butcher, to prepare the ox heart; they’d need someone like Eleanor Crook, who can do wax casting and modelling; a stonemason to carve the gypsum mould; a glassblower for the transparent model, and, finally, probably someone else to sort out the water and glass-seed and vortices flowing throughout the model (I don’t even know who that would be – a physicist, perhaps?).

That is FIVE different people, presumably all experts in their field, plus god knows what kind of Health & Safety regulations.

Which is why:

1) I’ll be amazed (and positively thrilled) if the BBC have reproduced the experiment.

2) Leonardo was, to understate, amazing.

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