William Harvey (1578 – 1657)
Without question medical science and our understanding of how our bodies work has developed by leaps and bounds over the last few decades. In many ways this is even more astonishing because for a millennium and a half or more medical knowledge was in a state of stasis. Take for example our understanding of blood and how it circulates around the body.
Prior to William Harvey, the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame our understanding of blood had been dominated by the theories of Galen, the 2nd century CE Greek speaking Roman physician. Galen believed that the veins and arteries were two separate and distinct circulatory systems, only coming into contact with each other through unseen pores. This view, at least in Western medical understanding – there were advances on this theory amongst Arab medicos but, of course, their views didn’t count – prevailed until the 17th century. There was what was termed the natural system containing venous blood which originated from the liver and the vital system containing arterial blood which originated from the heart and which contained the spirits that controlled the body as well as distributing heat and life to all parts of the human body. The role of the lungs was to fan and cool the vital blood.
This view of the role of blood was blown apart by our hero. He published, in Frankfurt in 1628, a 72 page book (Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis Animalibus) in which he gave a clear account of the role of the heart and the consequent movement of blood around the body in a circuit. In his opening chapter he stated how really to understand the workings of the heart you really needed to observe it in action. Given the ability to observe the inner workings of the body at the time, this was pretty much impossible and Harvey despairs, saying “..I was almost tempted to think…that the movement of the heart was only to be comprehended by God”. Nevertheless, by theorising and dissection of animals Harvey was able to come up with a compelling and pretty accurate explanation of how blood travelled around the body – a landmark moment in the development in the understanding of human anatomy.
Harvey was physician to Charles I and during the civil war witnessed the battle of Edgehill. His house was also ransacked by the Parliamentarian mobs and many of his papers were destroyed or scattered to the winds. He was also the first to suggest that humans and other mammals reproduced by way of the fertilisation of eggs by sperm, a theory which was not corroborated by evidence for a further couple of centuries.
Whilst all this is very worthy, what earns our hero his place in our Hall of Fame was his zeal in finding human cadavers to dissect to enhance his understanding of the human anatomy. As I have mentioned before, dissecting humans was infra-dig other than where the cadavers belonged to criminals executed by due judicial process. Harvey overcame this shortage of human material by dissecting his relatives, principally his father and his sister. You can imagine him anxiously enquiring of their health around the breakfast table and being disappointed when they own up to being in rude health, rather like, one imagines, Prince Charles and his mother. Eventually, our hero got his hands on them and medical knowledge advanced as a result.
For this cold-blooded zeal alone, William, you are a worthy inductee.
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