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The Dissection of Da Vinci’s Heart

February 1, 2011

Caitlin Harpster reviews the latest lecture to combine science and art at the Physical Center.

The second installment of the Physical Center’s science lecture series was given by Dr. Francis Wells on ‘Form and the Human Heart’ last Monday (24 January) [See also our review of the first lecture, ‘The Human Perception of Time’].  Dr. Wells is a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon and an associate lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Most commendable about his talk was the willingness to share, connect, bridge and build his scientific knowledge and experiences with the creative arts. As a child, Dr. Wells had wanted to be an artist, but said with a smile on his face that his mother urged him to make a living with a ‘proper career’.  Much to his mother’s satisfaction, Dr. Wells is regarded as one of Europe’s leading cardiothoracic surgeons. And much to Dr. Wells’ satisfaction, he is also an artist. In summer 2004 he was invited by David Hockney to show his work at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. His work was exhibited under the theme of professionals who use drawing as a necessary part of their practice. But Dr. Wells is better known for his extensive studies of the anatomical drawings by the Italian Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci.

What is form and what is function? How do they relate? Dr. Wells began his talk by outlining the need to understand the direct correlation between these two ideas. You must understand function to play with form; you must have form to adjust function. Dr. Wells passed a femur bone around the room. “Every dimple in a bone tells a story—a diagram of forces playing upon it. That is what nature is all about.” He went on to explain that no matter how hard we try, humans are bad at making objects (forms) that actually work (function) in relation to prosthetics—hip joints, artificial heart valves, limbs, etc. They are not the real thing.  They are temporary, and will need to be replaced. Wells states that the best thing we can possibly do is observe and question both form and function.

That is precisely what Leonardo da Vinci did. Leonardo was a man of constant curiosity, always questioning and sketching, dissecting and analysing, observing and recording. He was not schooled in medicine or anatomy. He was an artist. But his incredibly accurate drawings of the human body, in particular the human heart, have led to miraculous scientific discoveries and improvements even in today’s modern medicine. Dr. Wells himself used Leonardo’s illustrations to successfully improve the functions of a damaged mitral valve in the human heart. Wells has also recently published a book entitled The Heart of Leonardo: Renaissance Art and Modern Science (Prestel USA, 2009).

Most of the time, Dr. Wells explained, Leonardo gathered all his information and drawings from an ox heart, not an actual human heart. But the function remains the same. Leonardo wrote extensively about his drawings. He thought like a scientist comparing humans, young and old, and animals, big and small. He was never sure what he was looking at, what he would find or how it worked, but at that time, there was no literature on the functions of the human heart or what it looked like. And the fact remains that Leonardo observations were unbelievably astute. In conclusion, while looking at the slide on the projection screen, Dr. Wells said, as if talking to an old friend, “Thank you, Leonardo. You were right.”

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