The Nobel laureate who thought he had no talent at all

Willem Einthoven (Semarang, Dutch East Indies, May 21, 1860 – Leiden, September 28, 1927)

Willem Einthoven, the inventor of the electrocardiogram or heart tracing, was born in 1860 in Semarang, on the island of Java, Dutch East Indies, where his father was initially an army doctor and later worked as a general practitioner. Willem was the third child of a family of six.

His father died unexpectedly when Willem was only ten and the oldest child in the family barely fourteen. The young widow returned to the Netherlands with her six children, where she had to live on a small pension.

Willem suffered poverty and would remain so for a long time. After graduating from high school, he was able to study medicine with an expensive scholarship from the army, just like his father.

He strongly believed in the importance of physical training and was chairman of the gymnastics and fencing club at the University of Utrecht for a number of years. Later he also founded a rowing club.

Until one day he broke his wrist and made an in-depth study of the function of the shoulder and elbow. He wrote a work about it that made a big impression.

He obtained his doctorate from a professor-ophthalmologist and published a thin, but acclaimed dissertation on the role of colors in the perception of depth.

It was always like that with Willem Einthoven. When he got his teeth into something, he did his job more thoroughly than his colleagues. He thought of himself as having no talent or rather, that he had to compensate for his lack of talent with hard work.

As a result, in 1885, barely 25 years old, he was offered a chair in Leiden. His expensive scholarship required him to first serve eight years as a health officer in the army.

Einthoven asked for his resignation in order to become a professor. However, the minister concerned refused. Or he had to pay back his high scholarship. Einthoven opted for the latter.

Academic salaries were low at the time and so even as a professor he lived for many years in near poverty to pay off his national debt.

In 1889, Einthoven witnessed in London how Professor Augustus Waller showed with an experiment on his bulldog Jimmie how you could register electrical signals from the heart muscle. The heart was electrically controlled, that much was certain. Waller worked in a very cumbersome and primitive way.

And he just showed that that electrical voltage was there. Einthoven thought there was more to it. He designed a new kind of voltage meter that worked directly, namely with a thin conductive wire between strong electromagnets.

He made the revolutionary wires of his string galvanometer with a bow and arrow. He attached quartz glass to the pintail, heated the glass and fired the arrow, which pulled the liquid glass into a thin thread. He made the glass fiber conductive by silver plating it in a vacuum.

The vibrations were photographed as the shadow of the string on a moving light-sensitive plate. By 1902 he had finished his device. He had worked on it for more than twelve years.

Einthoven was the first physician who could show on paper that the basic cycle of the heart is identical for every human being, but that the other data are so specific and individual that you can recognize a human being from that graph alone.

And especially that you can see from the curves whether something is crooked. Einthoven read 'the secrets of the heart', as he himself said.

Strangely enough, he found no company willing to commercialize the device. Either the manufacturers did not want to invest, or Einthoven was difficult. He couldn't really have someone earning money with his device.

It was only when competition arose ten years later that he gave in.
Einthoven demonstrates how electrodes were originally attached to the patient. Both hands and one foot in jars of saline solution.

His laboratory in Leiden became a place of pilgrimage for scientists from all over the world. He was a timid, unassuming man who never ceased to amaze his visitors because he spoke four languages fluently. This undoubtedly also contributed to his international fame.

During a study visit to the United States in 1924, he was surprised to learn that he had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. The first and only one that would fall to the Netherlands.

He wanted to share the prize money of $ 40,000 with his instrument maker KFL van der Woerdt, but it turned out that he had died. He gave half the amount to his two sisters who lived in a workhouse.

Three years later, Einthoven died of a lingering illness. He was 67. Many heart problems that he described with his revolutionary technique at the time are rare today because they can be treated at a young age.

And the clogged coronary artery that people are so afraid of today hardly existed in Einthoven's time.