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Saturday, 6 June 2015

William Harvey


William Harvey was born in the Kentish coastal town of Folkestone on April 1, 1578. He was the eldest of seven brothers and two sisters.

William's father, Thomas Harvey, was a jurat of Folkestone where he served the office of mayor in 1600. He had a prosperous carrying business between the Kent coast and London and was also a farmer.

William was educated at the King's School, Canterbury between 1588-1593, then Caius College, Cambridge University where he studied Medicine and received a BA in 1597.

William enrolled in the University of Padua in 1599, where he studied under Fabrizio d’Acquapendente, who was the first person to clearly describe the valves in the veins. Galileo was a Professor during Harvey's time there.


After graduating from  the University of Padua in 1602, Harvey returned to London and joined the staff at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

Harvey was appointed 'Physician Extraordinary' to King James I on February 3, 1618. He seems to have similarly served various aristocrats, including Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon.

Harvey published his 72 page Exercitatio Anatomica de Motus Cordis in Animalibus (On the Motions of the Heart and Blood in Animals), in 1628. The poorly printed book explained the discovery that he had made 12 years earlier, that blood in animals circulates.

An experiment from Harvey's Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus

The work was based on Harvey's observation of his own veins and on his study of the veins and arteries of sheep.

Harvey reasoned in Exercitatio Anatomica de Motus Cordis in Animalibus that blood pumped away from the heart could return to the heart only by way of the veins. People believed at the time that blood was freshly made but he proved it was recycled and went round and round rather than in and out. Harvey also disproved Aristotle's theories that the intellect was in the heart and the brain was used for coding the blood.

Harvey's discovery of the circulation of blood was not confirmed until the microscope improved. He was ridiculed for his crazy blood circulating theory most of his life, and it was only in his old age that it was accepted.

Harvey lost most of his patients as they were petrified of his new-fangled teachings, and they nicknamed him "Circulator" or "Quack", a shortened form of "quacksalver" meaning a charlatan.

At the age of fifty-two, Harvey was commanded by King Charles I  to accompany the Duke of Lennox during his trip abroad. This voyage lasted three years, taking Harvey through the countries of France and Spain during the Mantuan War and Plague.

Having returned to England in 1632 and accompanied King Charles I wherever he went as 'Physician in Ordinary..'

During the English Civil War Harvey maintained his position, helped the wounded on several occasions and protected the King's children (including the future King Charles II) during the Battle of Edgehill. He spent much of the battle hiding with them under a hedge.
Harvey's 1651 publication Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, concluded that almost all animals are made from eggs, thus introducing introduced the subject of Embryology.

The fruit of 23 years of research, Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium revealed how a minuscule egg in a female became a foetus which becomes the animal. Harvey's research involved dissecting a huge amount of animals from the deer parks of Windsor and Hampton.

William Harvey was short, swarthy, round faced, Mediterranean in complexion, with curly black hair, little eyed.

Harvey was talkative, full of spirit, lovable with a sly, sardonic humor.

He married at the age of 26 Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of King James I''s then physician. They remained childless and William Harvey outlived his wife.

Harvey was a keen lover of coffee in his last years. The then-new drink was virtually unknown in England at the time but several of his brothers were early coffee importers so the physician was able obtain his own supply.

Harvey suffered from gout in his later years. One cure he tried was sitting on a roof until chilled and then putting his feet in a pail of water.


A nominal Anglican, conformed to the established church, there is little evidence Harvey had any serious Christian commitment and there are inklings that he had free-thinking tendencies. However the Calvinist environment he experienced during his student years at Cambridge University did influence him and through his examinations of the bodies of animals, Harvey felt he had seen the workings of God's sovereignty in creation.


After the Civil War  Harvey incurred a massive fine for his support of the king and had to live off his inheritance and stay with his brothers. He never owned a home again.

Color Portrait

Harvey died at Roehampton in the house of his brother Eliab on June 3, 1657. It appears that he passed away of a cerebral hemorrhage from vessels long injured by gout.

Great preparations were made for Harvey's funeral. On June 26th his body, attended by the fellows of the College of Physicians, was conveyed to Hempstead Church in Essex, where it was deposited in a vault prepared by his brother Eliab.

The William Harvey Hospital was constructed in the 1970s the town of Ashford, several miles from his birthplace of Folkestone.

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