William Harvey Biography (1578-1657)


William Harvey, the father of modern physiology, was born in Folkestone, Kent, England, in 1578, the eldest of seven sons of a yeoman farmer. While five of the other Harvey brothers became London merchants, William studied arts andmedicine at Cambridge University, where he received a bachelor of arts degree in 1597, and then earned his medical degree in 1602 from the renowned medical school at Padua (Italy), where he studied under Girolamo Fabrici. Returning to London, Harvey began what became a very successful medical practice while also engaging extensively in medical research. In 1604 he married ElizabethBrowne, daughter of a prominent London doctor; they had no children.

In 1609 Harvey was appointed to the staff of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He was elected a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1607 and was Lumleian lecturer on anatomy and surgery for the College from 1615 to 1656. His ideas about circulation of the blood were first publicly expressed in these lectures in 1616. Harvey became court physician to King James I in 1618 and thento Charles I in 1625, a post he held until Charles was beheaded in 1649. Charles provided Harvey with deer from the royal parks for his medical research,and Harvey remained loyal to Charles even during the Cromwellian Civil War, which led to the sacking of Harvey's rooms in 1642 and the destruction of manyof his medical notes and papers. Harvey retired at the end of the Civil War,a widower, and lived with his various brothers. He died of a stroke in 1657in Roehampton and was buried in the family vault at Hempstead Church in Essex.

Harvey's great contribution to medicine was his revolutionary discovery of the circulation of blood. His many experimental dissections and vivisections convinced Harvey that Galen's ideas about blood movement must bewrong, particularly the concepts that blood was formed in the liver and absorbed by the body, and that blood flowed through the septum (dividing wall) ofthe heart. Harvey first studied the heartbeat, establishing the existence ofthe pulmonary (heart-lung-heart) circulation and noting the one-way flow of blood. When he also comprehended how much blood was pumped by the heart, he realized there must be a constant amount of blood flowing through the arteries and returning through the veins of the heart, a continuing circular flow.

Harvey published this radical new concept of blood circulation in 1628. It provoked immediate controversy and hostility, contradicting as it did the usually unquestioned teachings of Galen, the basis of medical knowledge at the time. The most virulent critic, Jean Riolan, scorned Harvey as a "circulator"--aderisive term for a traveling quack. Harvey calmly and quietly defended hiswork, and although his medical practice declined for a time, his ideas had become widely accepted at the time of his death. The discovery of capillaries by Marcello Malpighi in 1661 provided the factual evidence to confirm Harvey'stheory of blood circulation. Harvey's method of drawing reasoned conclusionsfrom meticulous observation formed the basis of an entirely new approach tomedicine--modern physiology.

Harvey's other important contribution to medicine was in the field of embryology. He was one of the first to study the development of the chick in the eggand performed many dissections of mammal embryos at various stages of formation. From these experiments Harvey was able to formulate the first new theoryof generation since antiquity, emphasizing the primacy of the egg, even in mammals. His findings on generation were published in 1651 and became the foundation of the new science of embryology.

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