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William Harvey's Discoveries and Effects on Society

Info: 1985 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 5th Sep 2017 in History

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The Renaissance, which means rebirth, was a time of much literary and humanistic growth dating from 1350-1600 AD. During this period, scholars and intellectuals alike began to show interest and respect for the arts, literature, science and architecture again. The humanistic growth of this time refers to the scholars of the renaissance, known as ‘Humanists’, who put themselves and humankind at the centre of their world and culture rather than God. The Renaissance originated in northern Italy but eventually took over Europe, with clergymen and bishops moving to Italy to study  what was known as the “New Learning”. The invention of the printing press during this time also meant that books could be mass produced, quickly and cheaply for the first time, making them more widely available to humanists and those in the public that could afford such commodities. This led to increased learning in this time, which in turn led to great scientists and scholars being born who changed the way we look at the world, even today. (colaisteeanna.ie, 2011)

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William Harvey, alongside Galileo, Kepler and Bacon was a very important individual in the advancement of science in the renaissance period, who is credited today as being one of the most influential English physicians in history. He is mostly known for his research into the circulatory system and was the first person to discover and accurately describe how blood was transported throughout the body by the heart. Harvey was known for never fearing to go beyond what science had accepted in his time and for pushing the boundaries of Renaissance science, never having any fear to experiment on things that would be considered major taboos at the time. His exploits however would lead to the public and other physicians to write off his work completely.

William was born in Folkstone, Kent, England in the year 1578 to Thomas and mother of nine, Joane Harvey. Williams father, Thomas, was quite a successful merchant who would go on to become the mayor of his town which meant that William lived a quite comfortable life growing up. As a child and young teen Harvey was taught the classics and latin, which would later aide him in his ventures to Europe where Latin was widely used for academic work. In 1597, Harvey attended Gonville and Caius College in the University of Cambridge where he studied and completed a bachelor’s degree. Upon completing his degree, Harvey thought it best to move on to study medicine in the highly prestigious University of Padua in northern Italy. At the time Italy was known to be “one of the great centres of intellectual activity in Europe”. It was in Padua that Harvey would go on to study and be tutored under the great and famous surgeon and scientist Hieronymus Fabricius. Fabricius was a dedicated anatomist who was revolutionising medicine in the renaissance period who had discovered that veins in the human body contained valves, although to use of these valves were unknown to him. His beliefs in the workings of scientists such as Galen were so strong that he didn’t want to challenge these views which meant that Fabricius would never go on to further his studies in this area. Fabricius’ discovery would later inspire Harvey to further these studies. Harvey would then go on to receive the degree of M.D from the University of Padua in 1602, where on his diploma it was written “[Harvey] had conducted himself so wonderfully well in the examination, and had shown such skill, memory and learning that he had far surpassed even the great hopes which his examiners had formed of him. They decided therefore that he was skilful, expert, and most efficiently qualified both in arts and medicine€¦” (Famousscientists.org, 2015). He would then go on to return to England to join and perform well in his exams at the Royal College of Physicians.

During the renaissance period, the scientist and anatomist, Galen, was widely renowned as the greatest physician to ever have lived. Galen believed that the body was made up of bodily fluids called “humors”, these included blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Galen’s views were unanimously agreed upon and people of the time saw these humor’s in the same way that DNA and genes are viewed in modern science today. For example if somebody was optimistic or positive it would suggest, in Galen’s teachings, that the humor, blood, was the primary bodily fluid to make up said person’s body. The same would be applied for someone who was bad tempered who would be thought to be mostly made up of yellow bile. Although these findings were widely accepted, Galen was never able to prove them outright as at the time, dissecting human bodies was forbidden and was widely believed that it would lead to the dissector not going to heaven upon death. It was these accepted views that would lead future scientists, such as Fabricius, to not want to challenge Galen or conduct any sort of experiments that would be considered taboo at the time. (World Science Festival, 2014). Although Harvey was very curious and would go on to investigate Fabricius’ studies further as he was not a believer of this ideology, which meant that he wasn’t afraid to conduct experiments such as dissecting and other procedures that would have been considered unthinkable at the time. His practices though, did not come without his critics, who believed in the workings of medieval scientist and anatomist Galen.

It would be Harvey’s eventual rise through the ranks of the college of physicians and his marriage to Elizabeth Browne, daughter of the physician to the queen at the time Elizabeth the First, however, that would give Harvey the time and space needed to conduct his controversial experiments. His marriage into a family of power and his expertise as a fellow physician to his new father in law would lead to him becoming the physician extraordinary to Queen Elizabeth’s successor, King James the first. Harvey would begin through human dissection to open up arteries and begin to study blood flow and blood like nobody had ever before him. “Harvey’s work was based on a range of experiments and observations, including applying ligatures to arms to compare the flow of blood through arteries and veins and to establish the role of valves and some live experimentation on the hearts and vessels of fish and snakes.” (Underhill, 2015)  “Harvey also used mathematical data to prove that the blood was not being consumed” (Ribatti, 2009). Harvey continued to experiment until he was able to provide concrete evidence to publish for the public to view.

In 1628, at the age of 50, Harvey published his findings in latin under the title: “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus”or in English as “On the Motion of the Heart and Blood”. It provided new evidence on blood circulation for the first time since Galen, who had believed that blood was produced in the liver from food and pumped to the lungs. “It has been shown by reason and experiment that blood by the beat of the ventricles flows through the lungs and heart and is pumped to the whole body. There it passes through pores in the flesh into the veins through which it returns from the periphery everywhere to the centre, from the smaller veins into the larger ones, finally coming to the vena cava and right atrium.” (Ribatti, 2009) Harvey’s findings went completely against the works of Galen  which sparked outrage in the scientific community as Galens work was regarded as untouchable at the time. The medical community grew hostile against Harvey and began to send him threats and insults. Always a believer of his work though, Harvey would never stop trying to defend his findings. Unfortunately this abuse did not end and his practice began to suffer because of it. Eventually it forced Harvey into isolation where he lived out his life as a recluse to avoid any unnecessary attention on himself. This wasn’t the end for Harvey however as a new generation of budding medical students were on the rise, who were ready to disregard old teachings and pursue modern medical study’s which Harvey pioneered with his research. Harvey would continue to give lectures to the new generation of scientists, detailing his methods and findings and who would then go on to use these findings and methods in their own research which would eventually make the works of Harvey mainstream, eventually making him into a more influential scientist than Galen, whose work is still used today. His sceptics’ outrage ended in 1661, four years after Harvey’s death, when scientist Marcello Malpighi discovered capillaries which finally gave factual evidence and proved Harvey’s theory of blood circulation.

William Harvey’s discoveries and their eventual acceptance meant that medical practises in general improved greatly during the end of the renaissance period and beyond. His discoveries in the circulatory system and his students further studies into his field allowed for new, more complex operations to take place. This had a big effect on heart surgeons as before Harvey, nobody really knew much about the functions of the heart. This allowed for a greater, although still very low survival rate for cardiac patients as new experimental operative methods were used through trial and error. The next 100 years would prove vital for advancements in cardiac related research as followers and accepters of Harvey’s work would lead major breakthroughs that have lead up to where modern heart and circulatory surgery is today.

To conclude, William Harvey was a very influential scientist who lived in a time and culture where people outright believed the views of medieval medicine. A time where the medical community was unwilling to challenge the views of the greats such as Galen. Harvey showed the scientific community that no matter what your views or stance on a particular science is, that if you keep an open mind you may just be proven wrong in the end. William Harvey was the landmark scientist of modern medicine who paved the way for what we consider modern medicine to be today. Harvey was the inspiration for a whole generation of anatomists and physicians in his time and for future centuries to come. Who to this day is used as the benchmark for how influential a physician can be. “Thanks to Harvey’s willingness to abandon old wisdom and observe and test for himself, we have our modern understanding of physiology.” (www.discoveriesinmedicine.com , 2006)


Harvey, william – first, blood, body, Harveys contribution, Harvey publishes his findings (2006) Available at: http://www.discoveriesinmedicine.com/General-Information-and-Biographies/Harvey-William.html.

Ribatti, D. (2009). William Harvey and the discovery of the circulation of the blood. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776239/

Underhill, S. (2015) 6.2 circulation – Galen and Harvey. Available at: https://natureofscienceib.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/6-2-circulation-galen-and-harvey/

World Science Festival (2014) Misunderstood geniuses: William Harvey. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NOU4McjtXs

colaisteeanna.ie. (2011). The Renaissance. [online] Available at: http://colaisteeanna.ie/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/History-Revision-The-Renaissance.pdf

Famousscientists.org. (2015). William Harvey – Biography, Facts and Pictures. [online] Available at: https://www.famousscientists.org/william-harvey/


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