Thomas Bartholin and the Lymphatic System

Thomas Bartholin

Thomas Bartholin

On December 4, 1680, Danish physician, mathematician, and theologian Thomas Bartholin passed away. Bartholin was first to describe fully the entire human lymphatic system (1652), an early defender of Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, and he is known for his advancements of the theory of refrigeration anesthesia, being the first to describe it scientifically.

Already in the 5th century BC, Hippocrates was one of the first persons to mention the lymphatic system briefly. Further, the Roman physician Rufus of Ephesus identified the axillary, inguinal and mesenteric lymph nodes as well as the thymus during the 1st to 2nd century AD. During the mid 16th century, Gabriele Falloppio described what are now known as the lacteals as “coursing over the intestines full of yellow matter” and Bartolomeo Eustachi, a professor of anatomy, described the thoracic duct in horses as vena alba thoracis. The next breakthrough came when in 1622 a physician, Gaspare Aselli, identified lymphatic vessels of the intestines in dogs and termed them venae alba et lacteae, which is now known as simply the lacteals. The lacteals were termed the fourth kind of vessels, and disproved Galen’s assertion that chyle was carried by the veins. Johann Veslingius drew the earliest sketches of the lacteals in humans in 1647.

William Harvey published a work in 1628 in which he first pointed out that blood recirculates through the body rather than being produced anew by the liver and the heart. Almost two decades later, the Swedish scientist Olaus Rudbeck discovered transparent vessels in the liver that contained clear fluid (and not white), and thus named them hepatico-aqueous vessels. Rudbeck further learned that they emptied into the thoracic duct, and that they had valves. He announced his research results to in the court of Queen Christina of Sweden, but did not publish his findings for a year. In the meantime, similar findings were published by Thomas Bartholin, who additionally published that such vessels are present everywhere in the body, not just in the liver. He is also the one to have named them “lymphatic vessels.” This had resulted in a bitter dispute between one of Bartholin’s pupils, Martin Bogdan, and Rudbeck, whom he accused of plagiarism. Alexander Monro, of the University of Edinburgh Medical School, became the first to describe the function of the lymphatic system in detail.

Caspar Bartholin the Elder (Thomas Bartholin’s father), his brother Rasmus Bartholin and his son Caspar Bartholin the Younger, all contributed to the practice of modern medicine through their discoveries of important anatomical structures and phenomena. Bartholin the Elder started his tenure as professor at Copenhagen University in 1613, and over the next 125 years, the scientific accomplishments of the Bartholins while serving on the medical faculty of the University of Copenhagen won international acclaim and contributed to the reputation of the institution.

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