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WILLIAM HARVEY (1578 - 1657)




Portrait of William Harvey




William Harvey is famous for having accurately described how blood circulates around the body and the part the heart plays in this.



William Harvey was born on 1 April 1578 in Folkestone, Kent, England the eldest of several children. He was to all accounts an enthusiastic student and studied at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge from where in 1597, he was awarded his BA degree. Harvey then went on to study at the University of Padua in Italy, which was, at that time considered to be the foremost medical school. While at Padua, Harvey studied under the celebrated anatomist Hieronymus Fabricius who was already involved in research on the existence of valves in veins. Working with Fabricius helped to stimulate Harvey's interest both in anatomy and the work of Andreas Vesalius.

He received his medical degree in 1602 and subsequently returned to England where he started to practice medicine in the London area. He took up appointment as a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London and became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. The success he was to achieve as one of the most prestigious doctors in London gained him the post of physician to King James 1, whom he attended during his final illness. Harvey then became physician to his son Charles 1.

Between 1615 to 1656 Harvey worked as Luleian lecturer for the Royal College of Physicians.




In 1615 Harvey began to work on his theory that blood circulated around the body. In 1616 he discussed in his lectures the role the heart played in propelling the blood in a circular course. In order to prove his theory, Harvey carefully studied the motion of the heart and blood in live animals. He also carried out dissections on the bodies of executed criminals.

Through this careful and detailed research, Harvey was able to disprove Galen's theory that the body made new blood as it used up the old. He proved that the heart was a pump which forced the blood around the body through arteries and that the blood was returned to the heart through the veins.

In 1628 Harvey formally presented his findings in his publication - Anatomical Essay on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, in which he explained his methods and gave an accurate account of how the circulatory system functioned.

Harvey's work received a great deal of criticism from his contemporaries who distrusted any ideas which contradicted the established theories of Galen, especially as Harvey's findings brought into question the widespread practice of blood letting. This was carried out because it was believed illness was sometimes caused by there being too much blood in the system. At first Harvey's ideas were so controversial some of his patients left his practice. However, despite many still not believing his findings his fame spread throughout Europe and his contribution became widely recognised.

Harvey also undertook research in embryology the results of which were published in - Essays on the Generation of Animals.

In 1654 Harvey was elected president of the College of Physicians. Unfortunately because failing health, Harvey had to reject the honour.

He died in London on June 3 1657 aged 79.