And welcome to another edition in the series that we have lovingly called Famous Faces, in which we examine a famous face in the fascinating history of medicine! This week, we’ll get your pulse pounding, your veins pulsing, and your heart racing by examining the life and works of William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of blood within the human body!
William Harvey, born on the 1st April, 1578, was a seminal figure in the study of human anatomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and published a number of works on the circulation of the blood, the structure of the veins, and the role of blood within the human body. Harvey’s works introduced the idea of the circulation of blood into seventeenth century human anatomy, and revolutionised the way in which the body was understood, studied, and conceptualised within medical anatomy.
Initially educated in England, Harvey joined Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge in 1593, where he studied for four years. Graduating in 1597 as a Bachelor of Arts, Harvey travelled through Europe before enrolling at the University of Padua in 1599. Harvey graduated as a Doctor of Medicine in 1602 having studied alongside Fabricius and a number of other influential physicians, and returned to England to obtain a degree from the University of Cambridge the following year. He became a fellow of Gonville and Caius College and joined the Royal College of Physicians in 1604. After being elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1607, Harvey took up a post at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where he would conduct most of his research. Harvey lived an intensely academic life, being appointed as a Lumleian lecturer, touring the country spreading anatomical knowledge, and eventually receiving the position as physician to James I in 1618.
Harvey’s seminal work,Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings), published in 1628, explored the circulation of blood around the body in a mechanical system, and contributed considerably to the development of the field of cardiac physiology. The heart, in Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, was redefined from a celestial vessel in which the human soul was imparted to a mechanical, muscular organ that pumped the blood around the body in a series of experimental, quantitative, and mechanistic experiments and diagrams. Harvey’s work inspired a wealth of medical texts in the following centuries, and continues to be a central figure in the history of medicine.
Fig. 1 – Portrait of William Harvey, produced in 1627, (Public Domain Image)
Fig. 2 – William Harvey (1578-1657) Image of veins from Harvey’s exercitatio, (Public Domain Image)