Object 1: Da Vinci’s Drawings of the Heart

May 27, 2021


The prompt I have chosen to address is “Should some knowledge not be sought on ethical grounds?”. The objects selected will focus on the acquisition of scientific knowledge, and the ethical considerations associated with its pursuit.

These anatomical sketches were produced by Da Vinci in the early 1500s. He initially delved into the area of dissection in order to achieve the highest degree of accuracy in his work. His drawings of the heart are particularly famous, as they offered a very accurate representation of this organ and its function. He was the first to propose that the heart was composed of four chambers rather than two, and by drawing on his understanding of fluids, weights and engineering, he was able to closely analyse the workings of the heart’s valves and the flow of blood.

The majority of his conclusions are still accepted nowadays, and were verified by contemporary dissection. Cadaver dissection however was viewed as immoral and unethical for a long period of time, as it violates the principle of autonomy. This principle may be defined as the right or condition of self-government, that claims that all individuals should have autonomous control over the treatment of their bodies after death. His activities were also problematic on a legal basis, as physicians were the only individuals permitted to carry out dissections.

Ultimately, this image enriches the exhibition as it encourages reflection on the weight of ethical considerations when measured against the value of acquired knowledge. There was no treatment for cardiac disease in the 16th century, and surgeries were often unsuccessful due to a lack of anatomical knowledge. As his work remained hidden due to the criminal nature of his activities, Da Vinci’s studies could not be used as a guide; had they been made public, they could have potentially served as the trigger for a paradigm shift in the medical field. This raises the question of whether knowledge should be sought regardless of the ethical concerns attributed to it, particularly when views on ethics are susceptible to change over time. From a contemporary perspective, heeding to the ethical values of his time would have hindered the generation of knowledge.

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