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Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea

Patricia Fara considers a vivid biography of William Harvey, which reveals his complex character

Published: June 8, 2012 at 10:58 am
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Reviewed by: Patricia Fara
Author: Thomas Wright
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price (RRP): £16.99


This is not a book for the squeamish. Its author, Thomas Wright, is renowned as an expert on Oscar Wilde, but here he glories in the gory minutiae of Renaissance dissections, focusing in particular on England’s royal physician William Harvey.

This scalpel-wielding anatomist used live dogs for technicolour demonstrations of his controversial new theory that the heart pumps blood continuously around the body.

As though emulating the pulsing liquid he studied, Harvey coursed through life in a ceaseless round of activities. His Aristotelian colleagues saw him as a choleric status-seeker who was burdened with an excess of sanguine humour, an imbalance that prompted him to flush red when concentrating, flare up when crossed, and ruthlessly pursue his dying patients for their outstanding debts.

Harvey’s papers were destroyed during the Civil War and the Great Fire of London, so Wright has had to rely on other sources for his vivid pictures of scientific research. Despite the liberal sprinklings of ‘probably’ and ‘doubtless’, he has compiled a convincing portrait of an energetic, ambitious, intelligent man who transformed knowledge.

Originally trained in Cambridge, Harvey spent a couple of years at Padua, Europe’s leading anatomy school, where he absorbed the latest teaching in its impressive raked anatomy theatre. Back in London, he embarked on a successful quest for money and prestige, acquiring a place at court, a gentleman’s coat-of-arms and a well-paid professorship.
Harvey did not, however, have much immediate impact on medical practice.

A mediocre doctor who relied on well-cut clothes rather than clear-cut diagnoses, he was more interested in his reputation than in saving lives.

His shoddily published treatise on circulation was published in 1628, but had little effect until its ideas were picked up by the17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. More than two centuries later, the sick were still being weakened by blood-letting, a treatment that only made sense under older models of the body.

Wright presents Harvey as a revolutionary innovator who overturned centuries of error, but emphasises that he remained a staunch Aristotelian. Traditionally, according to both Aristotle and the Bible, the heart was the seat of understanding, compassion and life.

For Harvey, his employer Charles I was the ruling organ of the body politic, the central Sun who controlled his courtiers as they circled around him.

After the king was executed, Harvey lost his royal protector and was despatched into political exile. But even then, he was still in search of the new, becoming one of the first Englishmen to enjoy the latest import, a “blacke as soot” beverage called coffee.

Dr Patricia Fara is the author of Science: A Four Thousand Year History (Oxford University Press, 2009)

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