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Leonardo da Vinci: Painter, Polymath and Anatomist

Leonardo da Vinci was born in Italy in 1452. He was considered the height of the renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci was known to be an excellent painter, draughtsman, engineer, sculptor, and architect. But he also had a keen interest in the world around him.

His notebooks contain observations and drawings on botany, astronomy, cartography, palaeontology, and anatomy.

Art and Science are not at odds with each other as many think. There is a good deal of overlap. Science requires detailed observation and cataloguing. Diagrams help us visualise structures and concepts. All this is true for anatomy.

Leonardo da Vinci could have changed the history of anatomy had he published. Leonardo da Vinci did what his contemporaries did not: he dissected humans. This was something neither Hippocrates nor Galen did and was very much taboo still during Leonardo da Vinci’s time. That’s not to say Leonardo wasn’t influenced by Galen. Leonardo da Vinci started dissection on animals and then extrapolated up to humans initially like Galen. This is why in some of his sketches the anatomy is more animal than human. For example, the uterus in the work below resembles more the structure of a cow than a human.

Leonardo da Vinci did move on to dissect humans. He claimed to have dissected 30 throughout his life. While collaborating with an anatomist at the University of Pavia in 1510 Leonardo compiles notes and 240 drawings into what he labelled Anatomical Manuscript A.

Had this been published it would have changed history. In the manuscript, there was the first accurate depiction of the human spine, the earliest known description of cirrhosis of the liver, and detailed drawings of the heart. Leonardo states that the heart has four chambers and that while the atria are contracting the ventricles relax, and ventricles and atria are never contracting in unison.

This was groundbreaking at the time as it was thought that the heart had two chambers and blood is pumped around the body by the lungs. Through careful dissection and experimentation with ox hearts, Leonardo even observed the turbulence in blood flow that opens and closes the aortic valve. The circulation of the heart was not widely discovered until 1628 by William Harvey. All this could have changed had Leonardo da Vinci published.

Do you want to take part in a live dissection? Get your tickets to The Post Mortem Live here!

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