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Harvey, William

blood heart soon veins

(1578–1637) English physician: founded modern physiology by discovering circulation of the blood.

Harvey was the eldest of seven sons in the close family of a yeoman farmer. After Cambridge he went to the greatest medical school of the time, at Padua, and studied there in 1600 under , who discovered but did not understand the valves in the veins. Back in London from 1602, Harvey was soon successful and was physician to James I (and later to Charles I), but his main interest was in research. By 1615 he had a clear idea of the circulation, but he continued to experiment on this. He did not publish his results until 1628 in the poorly printed, slim book Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus (On the Motions of the Heart and Blood in Animals), usually known as De motu cordis . It is one of the great scientific classics. By dissection and experiment Harvey had shown that the valves in the heart, arteries and veins are one-way; that in systole the heart contracts as a muscular pump, expelling blood; that the right ventricle supplies the lungs and the left ventricle the rest of the arterial system; that blood flows through the veins towards the heart; these facts, and the quantity of blood pumped, led to his conclusion that ‘therefore the blood must circulate’. This idea refuted the earlier views of and others, and Harvey was ridiculed, but his work was accepted within his lifetime. He was not able to show how blood passed from the arterial to the venous system, as there are no connections visible to the eye. He supposed correctly that the connections must be too small to see; observed them with a microscope soon after Harvey’s death. Modern animal physiology begins with Harvey’s work, which was as fundamental as work on the solar system.

Harvey was an enthusiastic, cautious and skilful experimenter. Another area of his work was embryology; his book On the Generation of Animals (1651) describes his work on this, which was soon superseded by microscopic studies. His work on animal locomotion was not found until 1959.In appearance, Harvey was short and round-faced with dark hair. He wore a dagger and was said to be ‘quick-tempered’.


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