Lessons Learned from the Most Self-Learned Person: A Dental Student’s Perspective of Leonardo Da Vinci

By: Lena Syed, Tufts ‘24

Book: Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

You may know Leonardo Da Vinci as an inventor of flying machines, the painter of Mona Lisa’s famous smile, a scientist, an engineer, or a sculptor. In essence, he was an expert observer. He received little schooling and prioritized learning from experience rather than from theory. As we commit to lifelong learning, we can look to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Da Vinci for inspiration. 

Da Vinci is not popular for his encounters in dental science because his distinction in other pursuits overwhelms those discoveries. He was the first person to fully describe and draw all 32 human teeth with roots and to correctly identify where the frontal sinus is. He tirelessly studied the proportions of the human body, including the face, as evidenced in Vitruvian Man. He is history’s only artist to dissect and compare the faces of a human and a horse in order to ascertain whether the muscles that move human lips are the same as the ones that raise a horse’s nostrils. Exercising his enthusiasm for anatomy and sculpture, he was the first to inject molding material into a human cavity and mount it, as he accurately mapped the brain’s ventricles, similar to the way we mount impressions of the mouth for diagnostic purposes. While these endeavors served to inform his renderings of movement and emotions in his portraits and sculptures, it is likely that he was simply driven by his obsession with discerning the laws of nature. 

Da Vinci was a human just like the rest of us. He loathed being rushed by others to complete projects. His habits of procrastination and perfectionism led to unfinished paintings. Many of his discoveries in anatomy and engineering were not attributed to him because he did not care about publishing his work. His ideas were extraordinary and many of them were so unrealistic that they did not come to fruition until centuries later when technology improved. As he blurred the boundaries between reality and fantasy, he failed multiple times, but this just further enlightened his inventions.

There is much that we, as dental students, can learn from the man who depicted the world’s most famous smile–even if that smile did not show any teeth. Learning for the sake of curiosity, even if not directly relevant to dentistry, is something that we should do throughout our entire careers, and we must accept failure as a mere step closer to innovation. Let us appreciate how dentistry employs both science and art. Da Vinci’s observations of the sciences apprised his art and his analysis of art instructed his perceptions of science. I cannot help but reflect upon the famous quote by Van Gogh: “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Perhaps I will read his biography next.

Reference: Isaacson, W. (2017). Leonardo da Vinci.

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