The Heart

Peto, James
Date published: 
September 2007

Published to mark the opening of Wellcome Collection, the Wellcome Trust's new public venue in London, this book examines the history of man's understanding of the human heart from the ancient world to the present. Encompassing material from Henry Wellcome's own collections in the Wellcome Library, together with images and artefacts from private and public archives across the world, the book provides a richly-illustrated account of changes in our perception of what the heart does and what it means. The book first explores the symbolic significance of the heart in ancient Egypt, China, India and Greece, its role in Aztec ceremony and its place in the medieval world. It considers the centrality of the heart in Christianity and other religions, and literary and artistic views of the heart as the seat of the soul and of the emotions. The growth of anatomical knowledge of the heart as a circulatory organ, and its treatment through developing surgical technology, is fundamental to the volume. The meticulous drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in the late fifteenth century reveal extraordinary insight into its mechanisms, an expertise that remained hidden until Leonardo's notebooks were made public three centuries later. Only in the twentieth century did medical breakthroughs enable open-heart surgery, with full organ transplantation prompting questions about the ownership of the heart, and the source of life itself. With testimony from surgeons and patients, the book highlights developments in cardiac surgery and considers future alternatives involving gene therapy, stem cell options and micro-surgery.