William Harvey (1578-1657) and the Circulation of Blood

Monday, September 16th, 2019

A Bloody History!

The history of blood is connected to both events and aspects of history, for example, the Holocaust with Nazi ideas of ‘purifying’ the German blood, it is also associated with women and the menstrual cycle, and with royalty, but the main association is around medical history. From the Ancient World bloodletting was one of the first treatments that a physician would attempt in order to try and heal you, whether they used leeches or lancet, which was a standard practice in the Medieval Period as well. Andreas Vesalius (anatomy), Ambroise Pare (modern forensic pathology and surgery) and William Harvey (circulation of the blood), active during the early modern period, are associated with certain medical areas linked to blood.

James I and his Royal Physician

William Harvey, ‘De Motu Cordis’

Harvey (1578-1657) was a royal physician at the court of James I and was rewarded by his son, Charles I; illustrated by the fact that Harvey was allowed to experiment on a herd of royal deer, presenting his findings to the king. He also had key roles in several witchcraft trials, where he managed to convince the court that four accused women were in fact innocent. However, his most important contributions to history are his medical discoveries.

Harvey’s contributions to medicine originated at a time when there were several individuals beginning to experiment and contribute their own ideas; this phase was known as ‘trial and error.’ Before individuals like Harvey, ‘apothecaries’, as they were known, only had the works of Hippocrates and Galen to draw upon. Hippocrates refers to blood as one of the four humours. He believed those who had fallen ill had an excess amount of blood, and introduced the concept of bloodletting; thus, bloodletting was the way an apothecary would heal you.

Veins of Blood and Organic Pumps

Experiment to demonstrate valves in the veins, 1628.

Harvey would have built upon such works as these, as he discovered that veins did not carry air but blood and one of his other contributions regarding blood was that he discovered that the jugular vein of the neck did not in fact face downwards, but upwards, which meant that the blood flow was directed away from the heart; this led to his next major discovery. He was able to discover that the heart worked as a pump, which he did by making estimates with regards to ventricles and also how many beats the heart made per minute, discovering that the heart was an organic pump which directed blood to be circulated around the body.

His work drew a lot of criticism and conservative opposition, including French physicist Jean Riolan, but this did not stop him from publishing his theory entitled “Two Anatomical Exercises on the Circulation of the Blood” in 1649. The impact that Harvey had on the history of blood is significant as he led the way for many other discoveries regarding blood to be developed, for example, James Blundell in 1818 completed the first successful human blood transfusion. Harvey was influential during the early modern period as he was willing to challenge and develop the views and ideas that Hippocrates and Galen had developed.

To find out more about the history of blood listen to our podcast!

By Alys Collins.

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