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Willem Einthoven (1860–1927)
  1. M K DAVIES,
  2. A HOLLMAN

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    The Institute of Cardiology in Mexico was created in 1944 by Professor Ignacio Chavez and it has two large murals in the entrance hall that were painted by the eminent artist Diego Rivera. These murals illustrate the history of the heart and circulation and they have the portraits of many famous men. A portion of the mural appears on an 80 centavos airmail stamp and it has Einthoven as the central figure. The issue was limited to one million stamps. Diego Rivera was also the designer of this stamp, which was one of two that were issued on 8 April 1972 to mark the World Health Month of the World Health Organisation, the theme for 1972 being “Your heart is your health”.

    On 7 September 1993 the Netherlands issued a set of three stamps featuring Dutch Nobel Prize winners. The middle 80 cents value stamp features Einthoven and his electrocardiogram and commemorates his Nobel Prize for Medicine awarded in 1924. The other two stamps feature van der Waals (Nobel Prize for Physics in 1910) and Eijkman (Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1929). The stamps were designed by Tessa van der Waals from Amsterdam.

    Willem Einthoven (1860–1927) was the father of modern electrocardiography. The electrical activity of the heart had first been demonstrated in 1842, and in 1887 by using Lippmann’s capillary electrometer Augustus Waller made the first human recording, which he named the electrocardiogram. But the tracings with this apparatus were heavily damped and Einthoven set about designing a new type of instrument in the early 1890s when he was professor of physiology in Leiden, Holland. In 1901 he described his invention of a string galvanometer that yielded electrocardiograms of superb quality, as shown when he published the first one in 1902. The string galvanometer consisted of a very thin silver coated quartz fibre (“the string”) suspended between the poles of an electromagnet. An image of the string, magnified 600 times, was projected onto a photographic plate. His apparatus was the standard equipment until direct writing instruments came into use 50 years later, and the quality of the recordings made with it has not been surpassed. It was he who named the deflections P Q R S T and U.

    Einthoven was essentially a physicist and after a detailed examination of the problems involved, his design approach was based on physical and mathematical methods. His invention was founded on a long and profound study of the theoretical and practical aspects of the problem, and without his work it is quite possible that clinical electrocardiography would have been considerably delayed. His undoubted genius was recognised by the award in 1924 of the Nobel Prize for Physiology of Medicine. Furthermore, although he was not a physician, he was one of the first to recognise that the electrocardiogram would be important in the diagnosis of heart disease. In this connection he greatly admired the work of Thomas Lewis who was foremost in the development of experimental and clinical electrocardiography.

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