A Blupete Biography Page

William Harvey

Galen, a Asiatic-Greek physician who lived between the years 130 and 201 is described as having been a voluminous writer on medical and philosophical subjects.1 Galen is to medicine what Ptolemy2 was to astronomy. He gathered up all the medical knowledge that was known to his time. (Galen was a careful dissector and was the first to diagnose by the pulse.) The facts compiled by Galen amounted to a slim volume indeed, but it was all that mankind had until William Harvey came along, some 1300 years later. Galen had at least concluded the cardiovascular system carried blood and not air, and also managed to cast some doubt on the theories of Aristotle who thought that maybe blood arose in the liver; and the thoughts of others, that the pounding in a person's chest was but the soul speaking to us.

Harvey lived during the Elizabethan period of England.3 He had the good fortune, upon returning from Italy where he had completed his medical education, to marry the daughter of Elizabeth's physician. This connection meant that Harvey did not have to work too hard at making a living, thus leaving time for him to pursue medical research. By 1616 he was lecturing before the College of Physicians on the circulation of the blood. His notes (yes! he had extremely bad hand writing) built up into a considerable mass, as he went about, through the years, cutting up animals and giving lectures on his findings.4 Harvey may have realized right along the importance of getting his work in print, but he was in no hurry; like Copernicus, Harvey must have thought that his work was never quite good enough, but, nonetheless, it was plainly an advance on the accepted theories of Galen. His theories, to use own words:

"[It] is of so novel and unheard-of character, that I not only fear injury to myself from the envy of a few, but I tremble lest I have mankind at large for my enemies, so much does wont and custom, that has become as another nature, and doctrine once sown and that has struck deep root and rested from antiquity, influence all men."
And, Harvey recognized the problem with "journalism" as it existed then, and, as it continues to exist today:
"The crowd of foolish scribblers is scarcely less than the swarms of flies in the height of summer, and threatens with their crude and flimsy productions to stifle us as with smoke."
Harvey, at the age of 50, in 1628, came quietly to the world stage when he saw to the publication in Germany of a 72 page volume of his work (written in Latin as were all learned articles of the day). It was at the Frankfurt book fair that there stood a stack of newly printed books with the title, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), or, as it came to be known, De Motu Cordis. The earlier theories were refuted and Harvey's theory was advanced and has held firm ever since. (The only thing Harvey could never figure out, though he recognized it took place, was how the blood was transferred over from the arteries to the veins. The riddle was solved a few years after Harvey's death when a professor at Bologna (Italy), Marcello Malpighi, saw, through the newly-invented microscope, an instrument not available to Harvey, the capillary network.)

As the fame of De Motu Cordis spread, the critics came at Harvey from all directions. "Twas believed by the vulgar that he was crack-brained, and all the physicians were against him." For the most part Harvey ignored his critics, though it should be noted that his medical practice suffered. But, finally, 21 years after the initial publication of De Motu Cordis, in 1649, at age of 71 (he was to live to age 79), Harvey came back with a small volume where, in it, he gave his detailed replies.

The major difference between Harvey and his predecessors, was -- methodology. Harvey determined to start out, so to speak, with a blank fact book and distinguished it from his theory book. Nothing would go down in his fact book unless tested and would readily remove it if it did not bear out on a re-test. Harvey went beyond mere superficial observation; and, he took deliberate steps so as not to be hampered by superstition or antiquated theories. Harvey was the first to adopt the scientific method for the solution of biological problems. Every true scientist, since, has followed Harvey's approach.

I shall end this short note on William Harvey by turning to William Osler:

"... it [De Motu Cordis] marks the break of the modern spirit with the old traditions. No longer were men to rest content with careful observation and with accurate description; no longer were men to be content with finely spun theories and dreams, which 'serve as a common subterfuge of ignorance'; but here for the first time a great physiological problem was approached from the experimental side by a man with a modern scientific mind, who could weigh evidence and not go beyond it, and who had the sense to let the conclusions emerge naturally but firmly from the observations." (Attributed to Sir William Osler, 1849-1919.)


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1 I have the editors and owners of Chambers Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh, 1990) to thank; much of my bibliographical material throughout my writings has come from Chambers.

2 For a short note on Ptolemy, see Copernicus

3 On Elizabeth's (1533-1603) accession in 1558 (she reigned until 1603) England's low fortunes included religious strife, a huge government debt, and failure in wars with France. Her reign took England through one of its greatest periods, a period that saw the country united to become a first-rate European power with a great navy; a period in which commerce and industry prospered and colonization began. (See my page on Francis Bacon.)

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Peter Landry