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 on William Harvey

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).