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Would the fetus drawn by Leonardo da Vinci have delivered by the breech?
  1. Andrew Macnab1,2
  1. 1 Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, Matieland, South Africa
  2. 2 Paediatrics, The University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Professor Andrew Macnab, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, Matieland 7600, South Africa; ajmacnab{at}

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Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.

Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893–1986), Nobel Laureate in Physiology

A respected mentor’s ‘voice from the past’ taught me a lesson probably familiar to many of us, that when we ensure that what we publish is accurate, we enable others in the future to add to our findings in the light of new knowledge. I doubt Leonardo da Vinci was taught this premise, but it does in fact apply; even almost 500 years on, there are things we can add by observing the detail contained in his extraordinary anatomical drawings.

More than 600 of Leonardo’s drawings are currently housed in the Royal Library at Windsor,1 including 240 illustrations of the human body that are accompanied by over 13 000 words of notes. Many of these drawings are regularly reproduced, as I did, when I recently used ‘The foetus in the womb; sketches and notes on reproduction’ (figure 1) as the cover illustration for a book ‘by gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.’ Leonardo described this small chalk and ink study as ‘The infant in the womb showing the foetus in the breech position.’2 It dates from circa 1511, and shows a human fetus lying inside a uterus dissected by Leonardo following surgical exposure within a cadaver.3 Although never published in Leonardo’s lifetime, it is probably the best known illustration of its kind, and almost certainly the first in history to correctly portray the fetus in its proper position within the womb.

Figure 1

Leonardo’s …

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.