Harvey, William (1578–1657)

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Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Rev. ed.
Publisher: Facts On File
Series: Facts on File Science Library
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 1
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: April 01, 1578 in Folkestone, United Kingdom
Died: June 03, 1657 in London, United Kingdom
Nationality: English
Occupation: Anatomist
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Harvey, William (1578–1657)


The physician and anatomist William Harvey discovered the nature of the circulation of blood in the human body, thereby providing a viable alternative to the theory that had been embraced for many centuries. Harvey also conducted studies in embryology and served as the personal physician to two kings. He relied on observation in the study of nature and was an original and independent thinker. His findings transformed physiological thought and influenced a new generation of anatomists.

Harvey was the oldest of the seven sons of Thomas Harvey, a yeoman farmer, and Joan Halke. Harvey's father later became a successful merchant and rose to the gentry.

Harvey's brothers grew up to become wealthy London merchants. Born on April 1, 1578, in Folkestone, a coastal town, Harvey attended King's School in Canterbury. Harvey attended Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge from 1593 to 1599 before enrolling in medical school at the University of Padua, the top medical school in Europe at that time. There he studied under the anatomist Girolamo Fabrici and, most likely, Cesare Cremonini, an Aristotelian philosopher. Harvey earned his M.D. in 1602. In 1604 he married Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a prominent physician; the couple had no children.

After returning to England to begin his practice, Harvey was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1607. Two years later he became a physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, a position he held until 1643. Harvey became the personal physician to King James I in 1618 and to Charles I in 1625. Harvey traveled with Charles I on his many excursions and campaigns during the English Civil War and remained loyal to Charles I until his surrender in 1646.

Despite his success as a physician, Harvey's primary interest was in research. By 1615 Harvey had formed an idea regarding blood circulation, and he continued to research his ideas through dissection and experimentation. The traditional view regarding circulation was that developed by the Greek physician and anatomist GALEN in the second century. According to Galenic theory, blood originated in the liver, and arteries and veins carried different substances. Harvey supposed that blood traveled through the arteries and returned through the veins and proposed a circulatory theory. To prove this, Harvey dissected animals and cold-blooded creatures, including frogs and fish. Harvey found that blood moved through arteries, veins, and heart valves in one direction and that the heart acted as a pump. Harvey published his observations in 1628 in On the Motions of the Heart and Blood. The work was well received but did not find universal support at the time. Later it received recognition as announcing one of the most important discoveries made in anatomy and physiology during the modern era.

Harvey's interests were not restricted to anatomy—he was also drawn to embryology. Harvey believed that all life originated in an egg and rejected the idea of spontaneous generation. Harvey created the concept of epigenesis—the theory that an egg develops independently. He published his ideas in On the Generation of Animals in 1651.

Harvey remained active in the Royal College of Physicians throughout his career and donated funds for a library. Harvey left his research library to the college after his death in 1657. After retiring in 1646 Harvey, a widower, lived with his brothers in various homes around London. Harvey's discovery of blood circulation was one of the major findings of early modern science and encouraged scientists of his day to experiment, think independently, and question the authority of ancient theories.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX4065100381