Leonardo da Vinci’s Elegant Studies of the Human Heart Were 500 Years Ahead of Their Time

Leonar­do da Vin­ci didn’t real­ly have hob­bies; he had pas­sion­ate, unpaid obses­sions that filled whole note­books with puz­zles sci­en­tists are still try­ing to solve. Many of the prob­lems to which he applied him­self were those none of his con­tem­po­raries under­stood, because he was the only per­son to have noticed them at all. The ama­teur anatomist was the first, for exam­ple, “to sketch tra­bec­u­lae,” notes Medievalists.net, “and their snowflake-like frac­tal pat­terns in the 16th cen­tu­ry.”

These geo­met­ric pat­terns of mus­cle fibers on the inner sur­face of the heart have remained a mys­tery for over 500 years since Leonardo’s anatom­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions, car­ried out first on pig and oxen hearts, then lat­er, in hasty dis­sec­tions in the win­ter cold, on human spec­i­mens. He spec­u­lat­ed they might have warmed the blood, but sci­en­tists have recent­ly found they enhance blood flow “just like the dim­ples on a golf ball reduce air resis­tance.”

Leonar­do may have been wide of the mark in his tra­bec­u­lae the­o­ry, not hav­ing access to genet­ic test­ing, AI, or MRI. But he was the first to describe coro­nary artery dis­ease, which would become one of the lead­ing caus­es of death 500 years lat­er. Many of his med­ical con­clu­sions have turned out to be start­ing­ly cor­rect, in fact. He detailed and ele­gant­ly sketched the heart’s anato­my from 1507 until his death in 1519, work­ing out the flow of the blood through the body.

As the Medlife Cri­sis video above explains, Leonardo’s stud­ies on the heart ele­gant­ly brought togeth­er his inter­ests in art, anato­my, and engi­neer­ing. Because of this mul­ti-dimen­sion­al approach, he was able to explain a fact about the heart’s oper­a­tion that even many car­di­ol­o­gists today get wrong, the move­ment of the aor­tic valve. In order to visu­al­ize the “flow dynam­ics” of the heart’s machin­ery, with­out imag­ing machin­ery of his own, he built a glass mod­el, and drew sev­er­al sketch­es of what he saw. “Incred­i­bly, it took 450 years to prove him right.”

The mind of this extra­or­di­nary fig­ure con­tin­ues to divulge its secrets, and schol­ars and doc­tors across mul­ti­ple fields con­tin­ue to engage with his work, in the pages, for exam­ple, of the Nether­lands Heart Jour­nal. His stud­ies on the heart par­tic­u­lar­ly show how his aston­ish­ing breadth of knowl­edge and skill para­dox­i­cal­ly made him such a focused, deter­mined, and cre­ative thinker.

via Medievalists.net

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanti­cus, the Largest Exist­ing Col­lec­tion of His Draw­ings & Writ­ings

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ear­li­est Note­books Now Dig­i­tized and Made Free Online: Explore His Inge­nious Draw­ings, Dia­grams, Mir­ror Writ­ing & More

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inven­tions Come to Life as Muse­um-Qual­i­ty, Work­able Mod­els: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Char­i­ot, Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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