William Harvey: The Father of Modern Physiology (Part 1)

William Harvey was born April 1, 1578. Harvey had seven brothers and two sisters, and his father, Thomas Harvey, was a farmer and landowner. His father then became the mayor of Folkestone England after having worked there for years as a jurat (someone in the legal field that witnesses documents being signed). While living in Folkestone, he learned Latin, which was the beginning of his medical education. Harvey attended the King’s School in Canterbury, Kent, from 1588 to 1593. He then went on to study arts and medicine at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from 1593 to 1599. He continued his studies at the University of Padua, the leading European medical school at the time. He became a student of Italian anatomist and surgeon Hieronymous Fabricius, who had a considerable influence on Harvey. It is also likely that Harvey was taught by Italian philosopher Cesare Cremonini, a prominent follower of Aristotle.

In terms of historical context, while Harvey was studying in Padua, William Shakespeare was completing Hamlet, which most critics regard as his greatest work.

Harvey returned to England in 1602 after he earned his doctorate from Padua. On his return, the University of Cambridge awarded him a Doctor of Medicine degree, adding to the one he already had from Padua. He then moved to London to work as a physician. In 1604 he married Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of Launcelot Browne, a London physician, who served as physician to James I, the king of England and Scotland. Harvey and his wife appear to have been happy together, and Harvey referred to her as “my dear deceased loving wife” in his will. However, they did not have any children. Harvey was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London from 1607 and was active in this society for the remainder of his life. In 1615 he was appointed Lumleian lecturer in surgery at the Royal College, a post he held until 1656. In 1609 he was appointed physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, a post he held until 1643, when the parliamentary authorities in London had him replaced, Harvey being a staunch supporter of the monarchy.

Harvey was appointed physician to James I in 1618 and continued as physician to Charles I upon Charles’s accession to the throne in 1625. Harvey built a considerable practice in this period, tending to many important men, including author and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. In 1625 Harvey led the group of doctors attending James during his last illness and was an important witness in the trial of George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, who was accused of poisoning the king. Harvey was rewarded by Charles I for his care of James. Charles and Harvey seem to have enjoyed an amicable relationship, Harvey being allowed to experiment on the royal herd of deer and presenting interesting medical cases to the king.

Harvey lived in the era of the witch trials. He was a prominent sceptic regarding allegations of witchcraft. He was one of the examiners of four women from Lancashire accused of witchcraft in 1634, and as a consequence of his report, all of them were acquitted. There are numerous stories of him trying to explore the idea of witchcraft with the scientific method. One that is more commonly told is of him being sent to examine a woman for witchcraft. When he gets there, he tells her he is a wizard and asks if she has a familiar. She calls out a toad with milk. He then sends her out for ale. While she is gone, he dissects the toad.

He believed that everything should be questioned and considered from your own perspective. He did not believe that you should blindly follow authority. Yet, he demonstrated great loyalty and thus did not believe that questioning someone’s rationale and ideas precluded you from being loyal to them. In regards to the the topic, he once said:

I have often wondered and even laughed at those who fancied that everything had been so consummately and absolutely investigated by an Aristotle or a Galen or some other mighty name, that nothing could by any possibility be added to their knowledge.

In 1636 Harvey acted as doctor to a diplomatic mission sent to see the Holy Roman emperor, Ferdinand II. This involved nearly a year of travel around Europe. He met renowned German professor of medicine Casper Hofmann at Nürnberg and attempted to demonstrate the circulation of the blood to him. Harvey also had a wide interest in philosophy, literature, and art. During the diplomatic mission of 1636 he visited Italy to look for paintings for the royal collection. He was friends with Robert Fludd, an important English physician and philosopher whose primary interest concerned natural magic, and Thomas Hobbes, a famous political philosopher. He was also acquainted with John Aubrey, the 17th-century biographer, who gave an account of Harvey in his manuscript Brief Lives.

Harvey traveled through France and Spain during the Mantuan War and Plague. This journey was ordered by the king and lasted 3 years. He accompanied Duke of Lennox during his war tour as his physician. During that journey he wrote:

I can complain that by the way we could scarce see a dog, crow, kite, raven or any other bird, or anything to anatomize, only some few miserable people, the relics of the war and the plague where famine had made anatomies before I came. It is scarce credible in so rich, populous, and plentiful countries as these were that so much misery and desolation, poverty and famine should in so short a time be, as we have seen. I interpret it well that it will be a great motive for all here to have and procure assurance of settled peace. It is time to leave fighting when there is nothing to eat, nothing to be kept, and nothing to be gotten

One of the worst setbacks Harvey experienced concerned the loss of a great deal of written work when parliamentary troops ransacked his house in Whitehall in 1642 during the English Civil War. He considered the loss of his book on the generation of insects, which contained the results of a great amount of research, to be the “greatest crucifying” that he had in his life. He also lost notes on patients, postmortem examinations, and animal dissections. Further material was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666, which engulfed the library that Harvey helped establish at the Royal College of Physicians.

During the English Civil War, Harvey maintained his fierce loyalty to the king. He helped the wounded on several occasions and protected the King’s children during the Battle of Edgehill. The conflicts of the Civil War soon led King Charles to Oxford, with Harvey attending. He was later made the Warden of Merton College in 1645. Once there, he was able to return to his research.

The surrender of Oxford in 1645 marks the beginning of Harvey’s gradual retirement from public life and duties. Now sixty-eight years old and childless, Harvey had lost three brothers and his wife by this time. He thus decided to return to London, and lived with his brothers Eliab and Daniel at different periods. Having retired from St Bartholomew’s Hospital and his various other aforementioned positions, he passed most of this time reading general literature. Several attempts to bring Harvey back into the ‘working world’ were made, however; here is an excerpt of one of Harvey’s answers:

Would you be the man who should recommend me to quit the peaceful haven where I now pass my life and launch again upon the faithless sea? You know full well what a storm my former lucubrations raised. Much better is it oftentimes to grow wise at home and in private, than by publishing what you have amassed with infinite labour, to stir up tempests that may rob you of peace and quiet for the rest of your days.

Harvey died at Roehampton in the house of his brother Eliab in 1657. Descriptions of the event seem to show that he died after a cerebral hemorrhage from vessels long injured by gout: it is highly probable that the left middle cerebral artery malfunctioned, leading to a gradual accumulation of blood to the brain which eventually overwhelmed it. He experienced palsy which affected his face and tongue. He committed suicide by cutting his tongue and allowing himself to bleed to death; using the tongue because the palsy prevented him from feeling pain.

There exists a fairly detailed account of what happened on that day; according to the information at hand, Harvey:

went to speak and found that he had the dead palsy in his tongue; then he saw what was to become of him. He knew there were then no hopes of his recovery, so presently he sends for his young nephews to come up to him. He then made signs (for seized with the dead palsy in his tongue he could not speak) to let him blood his tongue, which did him little or no good, and so ended his days, dying in the evening of the day on which he was stricken, the palsy giving him an easy passport.

His will distributed his material goods and wealth throughout his extended family and also left a substantial amount of money to the Royal College of Physicians.

Harvey was buried in Hempstead, Essex. Harvey was placed in the ‘Harvey Chapel’ built by Eliab. The conditions of Harvey’s burial are also known: “Harvey was laid in the chapel between the bodies of his two nieces, and like them he was lapt in lead, coffin less”. On St. Luke’s Day, 18 October 1883, Harvey’s remains were reinterred, the leaden case carried from the vault by eight Fellows of the College of Physicians, and deposited in a sarcophagus containing his works and an inscription:

The body of William Harvey lapt in lead, simply soldered, was laid without shell or enclosure of any kind in the Harvey vault of this Church of Hempstead, Essex, in June 1657. In the course of time the lead enclosing the remains was, from expose and natural decay, so seriously damaged as to endanger its preservation, rendering some repair of it the duty of those interested in the memory of the illustrious discoverer of the circulation of the Blood. The Royal College of Physicians, of which corporate body Harvey was a munificent Benefactor did in the years 1882–1883, by permission of the Representatives of the Harvey family, undertake this duty. In accordance with this determination the leaden mortuary chest containing the remains of Harvey was repaired, and was, as far as possible, restored to its original state… 

During his life, Harvey wrote abundantly. However, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Latin for “An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings”), commonly called De Motu Cordis, is his best-known and most important work. It was important because it radically changed the way that physiology was researched rather than for the contents itself. It had an immediate and far-reaching influence on Harvey’s contemporaries.

But it is important to know that many of the ideas presented in this book were not solely conceived by Harvey. Many of these ideas were long since proven theories but were incomplete because they were studied separately. But the book carries the power of being a cohesive explanation of how all the theories fit together. This builds the foundation and core of knowledge for present day cardiology.

In many ways, Harvey is much like Hippocrates in that he has become a historical figure head. He has come to represent the change in view and style of research during the era but he is far from the only person who was looking at the heart and blood this way. Since he is the one that collated and unified the material, he has become the name associated with the work as a whole. This often happens in history and it is important to remember that most of the historical figures are not responsible for as much as historical stories suggest.

One of the reasons that this book is of historical importance is its “collaborative” nature. While Harvey did not cite anyone in his book as having helped him in developing his ideas, it is clear that he drew from the work of others. This a change in the way that medical information is presented and discussed. It is now common and expected that medical information will be presented with in the context of the information that is already out there; including comparisons to the other relevant information. Harvey performed a meta-analysis on the topic in addition to performing his own research.

So, next time we’ll continue this by talking about the other people who contributed to cardiac knowledge!


References and Further Reading:

  1. BBC
  2. Ibn_al-Nafis
  3. Brainy Quote
  4. Online Encyclopedia
  5. Britannica: William-Harvey
  6. Britannica: al-Razi
  7. Britannica: Aristotle
  8. Britannica: Rene Descartes
  9. Britannica: Ibn-an-Nafis
  10. New World Encyclopedia: William_Harvey
  11. Kids Britannica: William Harvey
  12. Famous Scientists: William Harvey
  13. Today in Science History: Harvey William
  14. Goodreads: William Harvey and the Mechanics of the Heart
  15. Goodreads: William Harvey
  16. Wikipedia: Michael Servetus
  17. Wikipedia: Andrea Cesalpino
  18. Wikipedia: Marcello Malpighi
  19. Wikipedia: Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus
  20. Wikipedia: William Harvey
  21. Wikipedia: Realdo Colombo
  22. Wikipedia: Andreas Vesalius
  23. Wikipedia: Ebers Papyrus
  24. Wikipedia: Circulatory System
  25. Wikipedia: Sushruta
  26. Wikipedia: Ayurveda
  27. Wikipedia: Avicenna
  28. Wikipedia: The Canon of Medicine
  29. Wikipedia: Galen
  30. Wikipedia: Pneuma
  31. Wikipedia: Erasistratus
  32. Wikipedia: Herophilos
  33. Wikiquote: William Harvey
  34. William Harvey and the discovery of the circulation of the blood
  35. History Learning Site: William Harvey
  36. The Famous People: William Harvey
  37. Galileo Rice Catalog: Harvey
  38. Encyclopedia: William Harvey
  39. Citizendium: William Harvey: Works
  40. Citizendium: William Harvey
  41. Science Museum: William Harvey
  42. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia: William Harvey
  43. Biographies: Harvey
  44. Science World: Harvey
  45. NNDB: Harvey
  46. Prezi: Harvey
  47. Soft School: William Harvey Facts
  48. On The Motion Of The Heart And Blood In Animals
  49. William Harvey and the Discovery of the Circulation of Blood
  50. The Birth of a Scientific Revolution and Modern Physiology
  51. Discoveries in Medicine: Harvey 

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Posted on May 4, 2017, in Education and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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