Reinier De Graaf (1641–1673) and the Graafian follicle
The name of this seventeenth century Dutch physician remains eponymously linked to the (ripe) ovarian follicle. De Graaf earned his spurs as anatomist and experimental physiologist. However, it was his pioneering work on reproduction that secured him lasting fame within the pantheon of medical history.
Sometime in the spring of 1665, De Graaf left Leiden for a ‘peregrinatio academia’, a study journey, through France where an interested audience came to listen to his lectures and participated in his demonstrations of the pancreatic fistula. On 23 July 1665, he earned his medical degree of ‘medicinae doctor’ in Angers, after which he returned to his home country and established himself in Delft at the end of 1666. He became one the most sought-after physicians in that city and further completed his studies on the structure and the functions of male and female sex organs [6, 7]. De Graaf selected Delft because of its favourable scientific climate, physicians and surgeons were interested in medical investigative work, and he had access there to an anatomy theatre and a well-stocked library. But whilst Leiden was indeed a scientific centre, De Graaf was well aware that an academic career in that city was impossible for him because of his Roman Catholic beliefs. Nonetheless, his years in Delft were happy ones. He found peace and tranquility and married on 13 June 1672. Unfortunately, his married bliss was ended abruptly by his death on 17 August 1673. His son, who was born after his passing, was christened with his name and also became a physician.
Important in De Graaf’s eponym are his theories and findings with respect to the function of the female reproductive organs [1, 2, 3, 8]. Where his predecessors held to the view that the woman, like the man, produced sperm, albeit without any consensus about the function of this hypothetical semen, De Graaf put to rest the age-old theorising and philosophising about the process of generation. Within the ‘testes muliebres’ (female ‘balls’), little ‘oval bodies’ or capsules, now referred to as follicles, can be found. Following his teacher Johannes Van Horne (1621–1670) in this, De Graaf called these little capsules “eggs” and “female balls” (the latter term “balls” not yet having the vulgar connotation associated with it today. The term ‘ball’ was used quite naturally by the poet Vondel to denote the globe of the earth) and also “egg nest” or ovary.
De Graaf surmised correctly when he suggested that the entire beginning of the budding new life lay encompassed within the fertilised egg. But De Graaf’s belief in ‘ovism’ was contradicted by Van Leeuwenhoek, who in turn proposed that the embryo is pre-formed in the spermatozoon. However, this difference of opinion between the believers in ovism and the animalculists was of only short duration.
In this brief overview, I have tried to show that De Graaf was the first researcher to have solved the mystery of reproduction. He was the giant that figured as the support pillar to which other scientists had recourse in their studies to advance the knowledge about reproduction and to fill in the details of the reproductive process.
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