Bartholin, Thomas

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Bartholin, Thomas

(b. Copenhagen, Denmark, 20 October 1616; d. Copenhagen, 4 December 1680).

physiology, anatomy.

Thomas Bartholin was the second of the six sons in the famous family produced by Caspar and Anna (Fincke) Bartholin. He entered the University of Copenhagen in 1634 and in 1637 went to Leiden, where he decided on medicine as his vocation. Like his renowned father, who successively was professor of anatomy and religion at the University of Copenhagen, he retained a strong interest in the humanities. In Leiden, with the help of Sylvius (Franciscus de le Boë) and Johannes de Wale, he produced in 1641 the first of the many revised editions of his father’s Institutiones anatomicae (1611). Notably, the new edition recognized the work of Aselli and Harvey. In 1640, threatened by pulmonary tuberculosis, Bartholin went to Paris, then to Orléans and Montpellier, and finally to Padua, where he regained his health, only to develop chronic renal stones. In Padua, he studied with a fellow countryman, Johan Rhode, and the anatomist Johann Vesling. The latter assisted him with a second revision of the Institutiones, published in 1645.

In the winter of 1643–1644, Bartholin visited Rome and Naples, where he gained the enduring friendship of Marco Aurelio Severino; in the following spring he visited Sicily and Malta. At Messina he was offered, but declined, a professorship in philosophy. During this time he wrote a thesis (never published) on fossil sharks’ teeth (glossopetrae), which were thought to have value as medicine. When he returned to Padua, he produced a related treatise, De unicornu (1645). The peripatetic Bartholin then moved to Basel, where he obtained a medical degree, and in October 1646 he returned to Copenhagen and joined the faculty of the university. Three years later he married Else Christoffersdatter. Of their children, the most notable was Caspar Bartholin, known eponymously for Bartholin’s gland (Glandula vestibularis major) and Bartholin’s duct (Ductus sublingualis major).

After teaching mathematics for a time, in 1649 Bartholin was chosen to succeed Simon Paulli in the chair of anatomy. Thus Paduan anatomy was introduced to Copenhagen. Hitherto, human dissection had been performed infrequently, was somewhat restricted, and was performed only at the discretion of the king, who sometimes observed from a concealed position. Bartholin’s most famous student was Niels Stensen. In his new post, Bartholin was able to study anatomy extensively and regularly, and this is reflected in the third revised edition of the Institutiones (1651), an edition much superior in text to the second, which had been severely criticized, both justly and unjustly, by Caspar Hoffmann and Jean Riolan. The third edition was also noteworthy for the illustrations from Casserius and Vesling that replaced the erlier Vesalian figures.

After being informed by his brother Erasmus Bartholin of Pecquet’s discovery in dogs of the thoracic duct (ductus thoracicus) and the cisterna chyli (receptaculum chyli), Bartholin undertook a search for them in the cadavers of two criminals, donated for the purpose by the king. He found the duct, which he reported in De lacteis thoracis in homine brutisque nuperrime observatis (1652), but apparently he overlooked the cisterna chyli and declared that it is not always present in man. Bartholin’s greatest contribution to physiology was his discovery that the lymphatic system is an entirely separate system. At first he sought to explain the lymphatics, already recognized as anatomical structures, as providing the liver with chyle for the manufacture of blood. On 28 February 1652, working with his assistant, Michael Lyser, Bartholin concluded that the lymphatics formed a hitherto unrecognized physiological system. This was reported in Vasa lymphatica nuper hafniae in animalibus inventa et hepatis exsequiae (1653). Failure, in this edition, to indicate the date of discovery by more than the term “28 February” and the inclusion of the further date “1652” in the second edition led to the belief by many that the true year of discovery was 1653. Such was the opinion of Olof Rudbeck, who claimed priority of discovery by reason of his demonstration of the lymphatics in April 1652. Although there was extended controversy, there is now little doubt of Bartholin’s priority. In Vasa lymphatica in homine nuper inventa (1654), he confirmed the existence of the human lymphatic system.

Continuing attacks of renal stones forced Bartholin to give up his anatomical duties in 1656, after which he turned his attention to a wider range of medical problems. His Dispensatorium hafniense(1658) was the first Danish pharmacopeia. The Historarium anatomicarum rariorum cemuria I-VI (1654–1661) dealt with numerous limited problems of human and comparative anatomy, and Cista medica hafniensis (1662) was a medical miscellany. Bartholin immediately recognized the significance of Malpighi’s work on the lungs, De pulmonibus (Bologna, 1661)—not least because it provided the first account and illustration of the capillaries, the link between arteries and veins hypothesized by Harvey as a requirement for a systemic circulation of the blood and now proved to exist. Consequently, he included these two celebrated letters in De pulmonus substantia et motu (1663), their second publication in Europe. In 1661, Bartholin was elected Professor honorarius, which freed him from all academic duties, and in 1663 he bought the estate of Hagestedgaard, forty-five miles from Copenhagen. There he devoted himself largely to literary, historical, antiquarian, and medicophilosophical studies, such as De insolitis partus humani viis (1664), De medicina danorum domestica (1666), De flammula cordis epistola (1667), Orationes et dissertationes omnino varii argumenti (1668), and Carmina varii argumenti (1669). Many unpublished works were lost in 1670 in a disastrous fire at Hagestedgaard, described in De bibliothecae incendio (1670).

As the most distinguished physician in Denmark and held in high esteem by the king, Bartholin was responsible for the royal decree of 1672 that decided the organization of Danish medicine for the next hundred years. In 1673 he established the first examination in midwifery at Copenhagen, and in the same year he began publication of the first Danish scientific journal, Acta medica et philosophica hafniensa. His health continued to decline, and in 1680 Bartholin sold Hagestedgaard and returned to Copenhagen, where he died. He is buried in the cathedral, the Vor Frue Kurke (Church of Our Lady), but unfortunately the location of his grave is not known.


I. Original Works. Bartholin’s works, which are discussed in the text, are Institutiones anatomicae (Leiden, 1641, 1645, 1651), revised editions of his father’s work: De unicornu (Padua, 1645); De lacteis thoracis in homine brutisque nuperrime observatis (Copenhagen, 1652); Vasa lymphatica nuper hafniae in animalibus inventa et hepatis exsequiae (Copenhagen, 1653); Vasa lymphatica in homine nuper inventa (Copenhagen, 1654); Historarium anatomicarum rariorum centuria I–VI (Copenhagen, 1654–1661); Dispensatorium hafniense (Copenhagen, 1658); Cista medica hafniensis (Copenhagen, 1662); De pulmonum substantia et motu (Copenhagen, 1663); De insolitis partus humani viis (Copenhagen, 1664); De medicina danorum domestica (Copenhagen, 1666); De flammula cordis epistola (Copenhagen, 1667); Orationes et dissertationes omnino varii argumenti (Copenhagen, 1668) Carmina varii argumenti (Copenhagen, 1669); De bibliothecae incendio (Copenhagen, 1670).

II. Secondary Literature. Despite the destruction of a number of his manuscripts in the fire of 1670, Bartholin’s bibliography remains extensive. The fullest list is H. Ehrencron-Müller, Forfatterlexikon omfattende Danmark, Norge og Island indtil 1814 I (Copenhagen. 1924), 276–290. Bartholin’s work on the lymphatics has been translated from Latin into Danish by F. Lützhøft and G. Tryde as Lymfekarrene af Thomas Bartholin (Copenhagen, 1936); and by G. Tryde as Thomas Bartholins skrifter om opdagelsen af lymfekarsystemet hos dyrene og mennesket (Copenhagen, 1940). There is an English version of Bartholin’s youthful travels and of the burning of Hagestedgaard, translated by C. D. O’Malley: Thomas Bartholin on the Burning of His Library and on Medical Travel (Lawrence, Kans., 1961).

The fullest biographical account is that Axel Garboe, Thomas Bartholin et bidrag til dansk natur-og laegevidenskabs historie i det 17. aarhundrede, 2 vols. (Copenhagen, 1949–1950).

C. D. O’Malley

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