"Now Nature conducted arteries and veins to all the [other] parts over the shortest interval, as I have said, and only the testes and breasts did she bring then not from vessels nearby but from those at a distance... for both milk and semen are generated from perfectly concocted blood.  It is the length of time which blood spends in the vessel conducting it that permits the perfect concoction of these, and of necessity blood spends more time in longer vessels and the longer vessels are always those that come from a distance.  Properly, then, Nature brings blood and pneuma to the testes and breasts not from vessels nearby, but from those that have traversed a very long interval."  -- Galen, 2nd century A. D.

One of the most interesting problems of the female body concerned the process by which breast milk appeared and disappeared.  The answer, as Galen suggests above, lay in the idea of the "female vein," which connected the breasts to the female reproductive organs.  Paraphrasing Galen, the twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote, "Since the breasts and the uterus were created to perform the same function, they have common arteries and veins."

femaleanatomy.gif (318794 bytes)The strength of this idea made it a commonly accepted feature of the female body well into the sixteenth century.  At the end of the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci's words could easily have come from the mouth of Galen (as they probably did):  "Both veins and arteries go from nearby places to bring food to their members, with the exception of the veins and arteries of the testes and breasts which come to these from afar off so that the blood may delay a long time within them.  Thus the blood is better digested and more easily converted into good sperm and into milk."  Look closely at Leonardo's drawing of the female body to the left.  Can you see the kiveris vein?

Leonardo's contemporary, Jacopo Berengario da Carpi tried to provide a more specific description of the actual path of this vein, when he wrote:

"[The] bifurcated arteries and veins, one at the right, the other at the left descending are according to some divided on each side into ten parts... [One] goes to the long muscles of the abdomen.  The branches of this one in ascending are joined with the viens of the chest descending toward these branches.  United with these chest veins they go to the breasts. From this branch notable parts go to the uterus, from which two veins not associated with arteries ascend through the abdomen to the breasts.  Through these veins the abdomen is joined to the uterus.  Therefore in pregnancy and in the time of retention of menstruation beyond what is natural, the breasts may swell as much as possible."

The more anatomists tried to find the female vein, the more metaphorically and less physical it seemed.  Increasingly lactation became less specifically associated with a "female vein."  Andreas Vesalius in his Epitome (1543), published in the same year as On the Fabric of the Human Body, described how the breast "by an innate force, converts the blood brought to them by the veins into milk."  He no longer spoke of a specific conduit.  In the late 1570s, the French physician Laurent Joubert scornfully dismissed the idea of "common veins between the breasts and uterus, citing Vesalius as his inspiration.  By 1620, the Scottish physician John Moir informed his students that the glands of the breast, more or less, had replaced the kiveris vein, though he did not explain exactly how they "have the function of attracting menstrual blood and changing it by virtue of heat into milk."

A hormonal understanding of the body is a very modern idea indeed.   Look to the right above at another Leonardo drawing of female reproduction.  How would you try to explain -- and draw -- something that you could not see precisely but were sure was there because you saw its effects?         



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