Harvey, William

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Harvey, William William Harvey (1578–1657) was both a physician and a remarkable natural historian. His great achievement was the demonstration of the circulation of the blood, a discovery which replaced centuries of theory and speculation with knowledge firmly based on accurate observation and experiment. His work was of vital importance in illustrating the sequence of hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion which has governed all medical discovery since his time. He was the founder of modern physiology.

Harvey was born in Folkestone in Kent on 1 April 1578, the son of a yeoman, James Harvey, and his wife Joane Halke. Aged ten, in the year of the Spanish Armada, he was sent to King's School, Canterbury, and from there to Cambridge University, being admitted to Gonville and Caius College on 31 May 1593. He graduated BA in 1597 and deciding to study medicine, travelled though France and Germany to Padua, where Galileo was then teaching. There is no evidence that Harvey ever met Galileo, nor of whether he believed in the heliocentric view of the universe. His own mentor was the great anatomist, Fabricius of Aquapendente, who maintained the traditions of Vesalius at Padua. Harvey graduated MD in Padua on 25 April 1602 and returned to London, taking his Cambridge MD in that same year. Two years later he married Elizabeth Browne, daughter of Dr Lancelot Browne, onetime physician to Queen Elizabeth. In 1607, he became a Fellow of the College of Physicians and in 1609 began his long association with St Bartholomew's Hospital, on appointment as assistant physician.

In 1615, Harvey was elected Lumleian Lecturer at the College of Physicians, and he delivered his first lectures in April 1616. The notes he used for these lectures not only illustrate his wide reading and knowledge of the classics, but also reveal some of the ideas that led him to the discovery of the circulation of the blood. For many years he gave the Lumleian lectures annually at the College.

His position as a physician was increasingly recognized in wider circles through these years. In 1618 he became physician to James I, initiating a link with the Royal family that persisted throughout his long life. In 1630, at the behest of King Charles I, he accompanied the Duke of Lennox on a European tour and two years later travelled with the King to Scotland. In the years before the Civil War he was in London, but he went to Oxford in attendance on the King in 1642. There, on 7 December, he was made MD of the University. He pursued his anatomical studies and dissections at Merton College. He was at the battle of Edgehill and is said to have had charge of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York during the action. After the surrender of Oxford in 1646, he returned to London and there continued his scientific studies. He was active in the affairs of the College of Physicians, being elected President in 1654, an honour he declined because of his increasing years, being 76 years old. In that same year he donated his library to the College. He died on 3 June 1657 and was interred at Hempstead.

Harvey's monumental work De Motu Cordis was published in 1628. In his dedication to King Charles I, he likened the position of the monarch in his kingdom with that of the heart within the body. Until that time, medical opinion was governed by the views of the second century writer, Galen, whose works had gained a position among learned physicians that was almost akin to holy writ. The Galenical view was that the blood was formed in the liver from nutrients derived from the intestine. It passed from there to the heart, where it was imbued with ‘vital spirits’, and then traversed the septum (which divides the right and left sides of the heart) through invisible ‘pores’. The different functions of the veins and arteries were unknown and the blood was considered to ebb and flow in the veins to reach the tissues of the body.

Harvey's observations clearly showed the Galenical view to be erroneous. Using experiments in animals such as the snake, he demonstrated that the blood passed from the veins to the right side of the heart (the right ventricle), that the supposed pores in the septum of the heart did not exist, and that the right ventricle propelled the blood into the lungs. It then returned to the left side of the heart. The left ventricle was thicker and more powerful than its counterpart on the right side, because it pumped blood not just through the lungs but throughout the entire body. Harvey clearly demonstrated that blood in the arteries was always carried away from the heart, and how the valves in the veins, originally described by his teacher, Fabricius, ensured that the venous blood always flowed towards the heart. He calculated how much blood might be propelled from the heart with each heart beat and showed there was no likelihood that the liver could synthesize sufficient blood to enter the heart as proposed by the Galenists. From ingenious but classically simple experiments and observations, Harvey concluded that the only explanation for the heart's action must be that a defined amount of blood constantly circulated throughout the body.

Harvey's discovery, comparable to the anatomical studies of Vesalius, was of great importance in destroying the influence of Galen, whose dogmatic assertions had by then become pernicious. It was perhaps natural that so novel and original a discovery would generate controversy. On the continent, Leyden was the first university to accept Harvey's conclusions; in many other schools, particularly in Paris, it was a further half century before Harvey's work was fully appreciated. So important was his work, however, that by the beginning of the eighteenth century the great Dutch teacher of medicine in Leyden, Hermann Boerhaave, stated that nothing that had been written before Harvey was any longer worthy of consideration.

Harvey was interested in many other aspects of comparative anatomy and physiology, for example the problem of reproduction, then poorly understood. But his discovery of the circulation of the blood remains his lasting memorial. His death in 1657 preceded by three years the foundation, by Charles II, of the Royal Society of London. It was, however, in large part due to the influence of William Harvey that the Society chose as its motto ‘Nullius in verba’

C. C. Booth


Keynes, G. (1978). The life of William Harvey. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
Whitteridge, G. (1976). William Harvey: an anatomical disputation concerning the movement of the heart and blood in living creatures. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, London.

See also blood circulation.

William Harvey

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William Harvey


English Physician

William Harvey was the first scientist to accurately describe the workings of the human blood circulatory system, thus establishing the modern science of physiology. Harvey based his research on extensive experiments and observations of animals and humans, rejecting ideas that were not confirmed by his experiments. Harvey's discoveries contradicted the long held beliefs of his contemporary physicians and scientists, and subjected him to great criticism and derision. When his work was finally acknowledged long after his death, Harvey's stature rose to that of England's most revered physician, as well as one of the founders of modern medical science.

Harvey was born in Folkestone, England, the eldest son of Thomas Harvey, a well-respected Levant merchant who eventually became mayor of Folkestone. After his first wife died in childbirth, Thomas married his second wife Joan, and they had seven sons and a daughter. William attended the King's Grammar School at Canterbury, benefiting from a proper English school education of academics and athletics. His extraordinary academic abilities became apparent and Harvey was enrolled in Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, where he received his B.A. in 1597. Harvey entered the University of Padua at the height of its influence as the most prestigious medical university in Europe, and he received his doctorate in 1602. William was then admitted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, becoming a physician in 1609.

As part of his physician's training, Harvey served as an assistant surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, where he gathered further clinical experience. After he received his physician's license, Harvey became a professor of anatomy at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and was awarded the Lumleian Lecturer position in 1615. This honored position included a series of weekly lectures over a six-year period, as well as six anatomies a year performed on executed criminals. Harvey's notes from this period indicate that he had begun to develop the ideas and concepts that would later lead to his monumental and critically important discovery of the true role of the heart and blood circulation. Harvey held his university post for 40 years, while serving as the personal physician of King Charles I, and maintaining his own medical practice.

In 1628 Harvey completed the publication that would be considered the most important medical textbook in history, Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis sanguinis in animalius (On the movement of the heart and blood in animals). Harvey proved that blood flowed from the left ventricle of the heart, through the arteries of the body and then into the veins, which eventually returned the blood to the right side of the heart. Harvey confirmed that blood in the right ventricle went to the lungs and returned to the left side of the heart, as part of the pulmonary circulatory system. He also illustrated the functioning of the valves found in the heart and veins, and assumed the presence of capillaries connecting arteries with veins, though final confirmation would come later in the century with the improvement of microscopic study.

Harvey's research corrected many long held erroneous beliefs about blood circulation and the heart, many originally postulated 1,400 years before by Galen (129-199?), the Greek physician of Rome. Harvey was able to cut through an immense accumulation of ignorance and incomprehension that had been held on to tenaciously by the physicians, scientists, and philosophers of Europe even during the seventeenth century. Harvey introduced both a new system of physiology of the heart and a new dependence on the experimental method of scientific research, a basic tenet of the era of modern science.

Harvey's practice suffered a serious decline and his work was largely rejected during his lifetime. When Charles I was dethroned, the aged Harvey retired into exile at his country home, but he did publish another textbook, De generatione animale (1651). In it he famously stated that "all living things come from an egg," and that the egg is a composite of both parents. He is credited with coining the term epigenesis to denote the developmental process of the embryo as it is gradually differentiated and emerges from the formless egg mass. This more accurate proposal was opposed by the more commonly held belief that all embryos existed as preformed, miniature individuals within the egg. Eventually a theory of epigenesis modified from that of Harvey was adopted and is currently accepted. Harvey is rightly remembered as the man who discovered the real workings of the human heart and circulatory system, thereby founding modern physiology.


William Harvey

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William Harvey

The English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) was the founder of modern experimental physiology and the first to use quantitative methods to establish verifiability in the natural sciences.

Born in Folkestone, Kent, on April 1, 1578, William Harvey came from a prosperous family. After 6 years at King's School, Canterbury, he entered Caius College, Cambridge, in 1593, indicating a preference for a medical career. When he was 20, he went to the University of Padua, the center for western European medical instruction, where he studied under the famed anatomist Fabricius of Aquapendente. In 1602 Harvey was awarded degrees at Padua and at Cambridge.

Harvey was admitted as a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1604, and that year married Elizabeth Browne, daughter of Lancelot Browne, physician to King James I. In 1609 Harvey became physician to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and in 1616 he gave the first of his Lumleian Lectures before the Royal College of Physicians, the manuscript notes of which contain the first account of blood circulation. In 1618 Harvey was appointed physician extraordinary to King James I.

Although Harvey's practice suffered because of his radical views, he was appointed physician in ordinary to King Charles I in 1630, and in 1633 he was with Charles's court in Scotland. Professionally, Harvey made news by examining and exonerating several suspected witches and by performing a postmortem examination on Thomas Parr, reputed to have lived 152 years. In 1642, the year he fled from London with the court, he was made doctor of physic at Oxford. When his brothers died in 1643, Harvey retired from St. Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1646 he fled with the court from Oxford back to London and retired to live with his remaining brothers.

Harvey's great contribution, Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus, appeared in 1628. It was a poorly printed 72-page book, done by an obscure printer in Frankfurt. Harvey probably arranged it this way in order to avoid trouble in England, for he realized that his ideas flaunted the conventional teaching about the heart, which had been derived from the writings of Galen. De motu cordis was a landmark in the history of science. In it Harvey demonstrated the circulation of blood in animals, thus giving a firm foundation for the scientific development of the health professions. It must have been composed at different times, for the introduction is more vigorous, and in its critical attitude more youthful, than any of the rest of the 17 chapters.

Harvey's De generatione (1651; On the Generation of Animals) pioneered modern embryology and comparative sex psychology. This work was important in holding that the embryo builds gradually from its parts, rather than existing preformed in the ovum. His studies here were balked by the same difficulty which beset him in his studies on the circulation: he had no microscope. He could neither demonstrate directly how blood would move from arteries to veins, although he postulated the capillary anastomoses, nor could he see directly how the embryo gradually aggregated. In most cases the demonstration was completed by Marcello Malpighi, the great Italian biologist, who was one of the first to have and use a microscope.

In 1653 appeared the first English edition of De motu cordis, and Harvey's genius was fully recognized. He gave buildings and a library to the Royal College of Physicians, although he refused its presidency. He died of a stroke on June 3, 1657, and, "lapt in lead, " was buried in Hempstead church.

Further Reading

The Works of William Harvey, a translation with a notice of his life by R. Willis, first appeared in Everyman's Library in 1907. Biographies of Harvey are Archibald Malloch, William Harvey (1929); Louis Chauvois, William Harvey: His Life and Times (trans. 1957); K. D. Keele, William Harvey the Man, the physician, and the Scientist (1965); and Sir Geoffrey Keynes, The Life of William Harvey (1966). □

Harvey, William

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Harvey, William (1578–1657). Physician. After Cambridge, Harvey went to the great medical school at Padua. His teacher Fabricius had identified valves in veins, and was interested in animal generation; these became Harvey's great concerns also. Back in England, he settled down to successful practice in London, becoming physician to Charles I and a staunch royalist. The structure of the heart and vein valves convinced him that, contrary to received physiological opinion, blood must circulate round the body (rather than ebb and flow), which he determined to confirm ‘by sense and experience’ (animal dissection, vivisection), but De Motu Cordis (1628) initially met with considerable controversy. He then turned to embryology, inferring that all animals start from an egg.

David Knight

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