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William Harvey

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William Harvey was born at his home on April 1, 1578. Harvey was the oldest of seven children born to Thomas Harvey of Folkestone, Kent and Joane Halke, of Hastingleigh, Kent. Harvey attended The Kings School, Canterbury as a young child. At the age of 16 he was awarded a medical scholarship allowing him to attend Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1597. Harvey then went on to study at the University of Padua in Italy. While attending Padua he studied under Hieronymus Fabricius and the Aristotelian philosopher Cesare Cremonini, and graduated in 1602. That same year Harvey returned to England where he married the daughter of a prominent physician of the Queen by the name of Elizabeth C. Brown. Harvey practiced medicine in London at St. Bartholomew's Hospital from 1609-1643. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1615. In 1618 Harvey was appointed as the personal physician to James I and his court. Following the death of James I, he became the physician for King Charles I. After leaving St. Bartholomew's, Harvey went on to become the Warden of Merton College, Oxford.

During Harvey's lifetime he had an intense curiosity about how the heart and it's vessels worked to move the blood throughout the body. His former professor, Hieronymus Fabricius, had previously claimed a discovery regarding valves in the veins. Harvey, being unsatisfied with the explanation of the valves purpose by Fabricius, Harvey set out on a mission to discover the true purpose and function of the valves in the veins. During his journey to acquire that knowledge, Harvey discovered the answer to a much larger question regarding the motion of blood, and in 1616, he announced his discovery of the circulatory system. Several years later in 1628, he published is works in the book, Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise of the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), in which he explained that the blood was pumped from the heart throughout the body, and then the blood returned to the heart and recirculated in a closed system. It was a common belief prior to Harvey's discovery that the blood was produced in the liver and was consumed by the organs of the body. As one could only imagine, Harvey's findings stirred up much controversy and debate. However, Harvey's research findings were based on meticulous observations during several vivisection's of animals, and later became the basis for all modern research on the heart and blood vessels.

Harvey's view was that the blood traveled through the heart in two separate closed loops. The first loop connected the circulatory system to the lungs (Pulmonary circulation),while the second loop allowed the blood to travel to the vital organs and body tissues (systemic circulation). It was during his observations that Harvey also noted that the venous blood would move towards the heart, and the veins would not allow the flow of blood to go in the opposite direction. It was during the course of additional experiments that Harvey stated his theory that the veins allowed the blood to flow not only toward the heart, but that the valves inside the veins (that were first discovered by his professor) maintained the one way flow. Harvey also proved that the heart pumped blood throughout the body, which was in contrast to a prevailing theory that the flow of blood was caused by a sucking action by the heart and the liver.

Regardless of the fact that Harvey's theories raised incredible controversy, they were eventually embraced and accepted. Harvey was notably recognized as a medical leader in his day.

Towards the end of Harvey's life a library was built and furnished, (largely by donations from Harveyhimself) at Merton College. In 1654 the library was dedicated in his name. In 1656, Harvey generously gave an endowment to pay a librarian and to present a yearly oration. This continues to this day in honor of William Harvey.

At the age of seventy-nine, William Harvey died of a stroke. His legacy continues throughout the world of medicine and in his native town of Folkestone. Harvey had provided money from his will to fund a boys school, which opened in 1674. The Harvey Grammar School has been in operation to the present day.


The World Book Encyclopedia (1990), Volume 9, Chicago: World Book Inc.

Dr. William Harvey and the Discovery of Circulation (1967). New York: Macmillan Company

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