Highmore, Nathaniel

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Highmore, Nathaniel

(b. Fordingbridge, England, 6 February 1613; d. Sherborne, Dorset, England, 21 March 1685)

anatomy, medicine.

Son of Rev. Nathaniel Highmore, rector of Purse Caundle, Dorset, Highmore was the most distinguished member of a family that for several centuries produced clergymen, doctors, lawyers, and one well–known Painter, Joseph Highmore. His most important scientific contribution is Corporis humani disquisitio anatomica (1651), containing the first description of the antrum of Highmore (maxillary sinus, the largest of the paranasal sinuses) and of the Corpus Highmori (mediastinal testis). Dedicated to William Harvey, it was the first anatomical textbook to accept Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood; its frontispiece incorporates an allegorical drawing of this new theory. Although Highmore’s physiology reflects the still medieval thinking of his time, the book was accepted as a standard anatomical textbook for many years and brought the author immediate recognition in England and abroad. For instance, Johann Daniel Horst, chief court physician of Hesse-Darmstadt, in asking William Harvey (1655) to undertake a study of the lymphatic and thoracic ducts, suggested as an alternative “the most illustrious Dr. Highmore”; and Boyle spoke of Highmore as “my learned friend,” quoted his experiments, and referred a knotty physiological problem to him.

Educated at Sherborne School and Trinity College, Oxford, Highmore graduated B.A. in 1935 and M.A. in 1638, then proceeded to study medicine. In 1640 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Haydocke, a noted physician of Salisbury. (Highmore had probably sought practical experience with Haydocke before receiving his B.M. in 1641.) When the Civil War began in 1642, Highmore was one of a group of scientists at Trinity College, Oxford, headed by George Bathurst and William Harvey (then physician to King Charles I), who were conducting experiments on embryonic development of the chick. This study led to friendship between Highmore and Harvey and an evident agreement between them to publish the conclusions derived from their joint experiments in embryology. Highmore implied this agreement clearly in the dedication (written in 1650) of his Corporis: “It is now eight years since we first had it in mind to expose our careful studies...to the judgement of the public.” Highmore and Harvey both published their results in 1651; Harvey in his Exercitationes de generatione animalium and Highmore in The History of Generation (dedicated to Robert Boyle). Highmore’s Generation contains the first reference in English to use og the microscope, which may well have helped him to report changes in the embryonic area of the egg at a day earlier than did Harvey. The book is also notable for its careful observations and illustrations of plants, leading one modern authority to comment that Highmore;s contribution to botany has not been adequately recoginzed.

In 1643 Highmore received his M.D. at Oxford under the “Caroline Creations” (whereby, by royal command, the university conferred degrees on those who had specially served the king’s cause at the battle of Edge Hill and after). It is not known why Highmore was so honored, but one surmise is that he attended the young Prince Charles during a bout of measles at Reading in November 1642.

Fully qualified for medical practice, Highmore returned to Sherborne, where he practiced for forty years as a skillful and sought-after physician, his work marked by real concern for his patients and a commonsense approach to medicine. Despite the demands of a busy practice he found time to keep in touch with scientific thought. There was an unfulfilled suggestion to elect him a fellow of the newly formed Royal Society, and he contributed articles on medicinal springs to the Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He also—through his essays De passione hysterica and De affectionae hypochondriaca—engaged in a controversy with the redoubtable Thomas Willis, professor of natural philosophy at Oxford.

Highmore’s life was full and well rounded; internationally famous as an anatomist, loved and esteemed as a physician, he also assumed a full share of civic duties. He became a justice of the peace and county treasurer for Dorset; in Sherborne he was active in church affairs, and served for many years on the governing body of the town’s historic almshouse and Sherborne School.


I. Original Works. There are MSS (mainly unconnected medical notes) in the British Museum, Sloane and Add. MSS. Published works include Corporis humani disquisitio anatomica (The Hague, 1651); The History of Generation (London, 1651); and Exercitaiones duae...De passione hysterica...De affectionae hypochodriaca (Oxford, 1660; 2nd ed., 1677). Possibly by Hihmore is Treatise on...a Plague of the Guts (London, 1658). His articles on medicinal spas include “Some Considerations Relating to D. Witties Defence of Scarborough Spaw,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,4, no. 56 (1669), 1128–1131.

II. Secondary Literature. The only published works on Highmore are studies by J. Elise Gordon: “The Highmore Family of Dorset,” in Journal of the Sherborne Historical Society,3 (1966), 2 ff.; “Nathaniel Highmore, Physician and Anatomist 1613–1685,” in Practitioner,196 (June 1966), 851 ff,; and “Nathaniel Highmore,” no. 2 of articles entitled “Two 17th Century Physicians,” in Midwife and Health Visitor,5 (Aug, 1969), 364 ff.

Contemporary references include Robert Boyle, New Experiments, Physicall-Mechanicall...(Oxford, 1660); J. D. Horst, Observationem anatomicarum (Frankfurt, 1656), for the Horst-Harvey correspondence; Robert Plot, Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677); Thomas Willis, Affectionam quae dicuntur hystericae et hypochondricae...contraresponsionem epistolarum Nathanael Highmori M.D. (London, 1670); and Anthony á Wood, Athenae Oxoniensis (London, 1692).

For references to Highmore’s works and assessment of his significance, see R. T. Gunther, Early Science at Oxford, III (Oxford, 1937); Geoffrey Keynes, Life of William Harvey (Oxford, 1966); and A. T. H. Robb Smith, “Harvey at Oxford,” in Oxford Medical School Gazette, 9 no. 2 (1957).

Details of his life were obtained from Highmore family papers, local Dorset and Sherborne records, and communications with the University of Oxford and Trinity College, Oxford.

J. Elise Gordon