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Historical Perspective: Giovanni Alfonso Borelli: Father of Spinal Biomechanics

Provencher, Matthew T. MD; Abdu, William A. MD

Historical Perspective

The first modern textbook on spinal biomechanics was written by Giovanni Alfonso Borelli in 1680. A mathematician, astronomer, and physicist by trade, Borelli became consumed in the physical laws of nature and the human body. His work served as a monumental contribution to ascertain, in depth and with undiminished accuracy, the basic biomechanical principles of the human body.

“I undertook this work, not only to illustrate and enrich the part devoted to Physics by mathematical demonstrations but also to enlist anatomy into Physics and Mathematics not less than Astronomy.”

Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, in De Motu Animalium [On the Movement of Animals], translated from the Latin in 1989 by Paul Maquet. 2

A new philosophy of science and medicine had spread throughout 17th century Italy. Gone were the principles of the medieval scholasticism of Aquinas. Arabic cultures no longer were petitioned for their theologic interpretation of science. Magic and mysticism appealed only to the ignorant. 3 A shift in science had occurred. Modern 17th century scientists renounced a previously nominalistic approach. They no longer relied on abstracts and universal ideas. Instead, these contemporary scientists underscored the importance of approaching empirical experiments, mathematic concepts, and explanations only through the physical laws of nature.

The transition was the Renaissance. It was a period of intense personal and spiritual independence, which inspired an insatiable curiosity to find the physical truth. The previous premises of theoretical explanations, magical existence, and relationships between humans and astrology had eroded. 9 The universe had a set of laws, and scientists collaborated for their methodic ascertainment. Galileo provided the telescope, da Vinci countless experiments, and Copernicus a new frame of reference; Kepler explained planetary motion, Descartes a distinction between mind and spirits, Boyle a sense of gravity to our breath, Pascal our atmosphere, and Harvey a complete circuit of blood circulation. These individuals elevated 17th century science from the obscure and irrelevant to the practical and tested.

Arguably, one of the most revolutionary and courageous scientists who surmounted this opposing conservatism in the 1600s was Giovanni Alfonso Borelli. Borelli was Italian by birth, and his consummate work entitled De Motu Animalium (On the Movement of Animals) recently was translated by Paul Maquet in 1989, thus providing valuable evidence of Borelli’s contributions to the scientific community. A physicist, astronomer, and personal medical consultant to the Queen of Sweden, Borelli documented original research regarding spinal biomechanics, muscular contraction, cardiac output, blood flow, nerve transmission, and pulmonary function, and was the first to demonstrate an effective collaboration between a physician and a biophysicist. His contributions to spinal surgeons were not insignificant. Not only did he accurately describe the anatomy of the spine, but he also calculated forces on spinal musculature and intervertebral discs, and elucidated the load-sharing characteristics of the human body. Had it not been for his steadfast and unyielding conviction, many fundamental principles of human physiology and biomechanics might have remained unexplained for years. For reasons unknown, his contributions have been largely overlooked. Thus, this report is an attempt to acknowledge fully the “Father of spinal biomechanics.”2

From the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Address reprint requests to

William A. Abdu, MD

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

One Medical Center Drive

Lebanon, NH 03756

© 2000 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.