Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Harvey, Williamfree

  • Roger French

William Harvey (1578–1657)

attrib. Daniel Mytens, c. 1627

Harvey, William (1578–1657), physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood, was born on 1 April 1578 at Folkestone, Kent. His father, Thomas (1549–1623), and his second wife, Joan (1556–1605), née Halke, had two daughters, Sarah (1580–1591) and Amy (b. 1596), and six other sons, John (b. 1582), Thomas (b. 1585), Daniel (b. 1587), Eliab (b. 1590), and the twins Michael and Matthew (b. 1593). William was thus the couple's eldest child. There was also a daughter from Thomas's previous marriage. Thomas was a farmer and a carrier with a business between Folkestone and London; Harvey's birthplace was accordingly known as ‘the Post House’. Harvey's brothers succeeded as merchants, or at court, and were able to assist him in his career in a material way. Harvey was short, with black hair, as a young man, and bright brown eyes; John Aubrey thought him 'very cholerique'.

Education, marriage, and early career

Details of Harvey's early education are sketchy; however, by 1588 he was attending the King's School, Canterbury. Here he learned his Latin, which was businesslike rather than elegant, and occasionally idiosyncratic. He went on to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to which he was admitted on the last day of May 1593. The old Gonville Hall had been refounded by John Caius in 1567, who was its master on his death in 1573. Caius was a notable scholar who had studied medicine under Montanus and who had shared lodgings with the anatomist Vesalius; possibly his college was attractive to those with an eye on medicine as a career, for one of Caius's innovations was to procure the bodies of executed criminals for dissection. These anatomies were probably still performed in Harvey's day, although his tutor was not a medical man but George Estey, a clergyman who taught Hebrew.

In Michaelmas 1593 Harvey was awarded a Matthew Parker scholarship. The intention of its founder, the archbishop, was that his endowment should enable a man born in Kent and educated at the King's School to study medicine. Harvey graduated BA in 1597 and continued to receive his annual stipend of £3 0s. 8d. until 1599; clearly he was taught the bulk of his natural philosophy and medicine in Cambridge.

In early 1600 Harvey was in Padua, an understandable choice for an ambitious medical student. He furthered his anatomical education with Girolamo Fabrizi of Acquapendente (Fabricius) who was carrying out original anatomical research in a manner derived from Aristotle. This was to be of great importance to Harvey. Little more than two years after arriving in Padua, Harvey was awarded his MD degree on 25 April 1602. He was incorporated at Cambridge in the same year. On his return to England, Harvey took a house in the parish of St Martin Ludgate, London, and sought to be admitted to the College of Physicians, in order to be able to practise in the capital. He was first examined on 4 May 1603 but not admitted, although he was allowed to practise. He was examined a second time nearly a year later and a third on 11 May 1604, when he was approved for a candidateship. Further rituals of admission followed in August, and finally on 5 October he was sworn in as a licentiate. Harvey was now in a position to marry, and he did so the following month, the marriage licence being dated 24 November 1604. His wife was Elizabeth Browne (d. 1645×52), daughter of Lancelot Browne (d. 1605), physician to James I and an important fellow of the College of Physicians. William and Elizabeth had no children; all that we know of her from Harvey's own words was that she kept a parrot. Before his death Browne tried unsuccessfully to secure a position for his son-in-law as physician to the Tower of London. Nevertheless Harvey became known at court, perhaps through the good offices of his brother John, who was in the king's service, and ultimately Harvey became physician to St Bartholomew's Hospital, on 14 October 1609.

Harvey pursued his career in the College of Physicians with vigour. He was appointed a censor in 1613 and reappointed in 1625 and 1627. Therefore, on the eve of publishing a book that demonstrated the circulation of the blood and undermined the theories of Galen, he was examining applicants to the college on the orthodoxy of their Galenism. He became an elect of the college in 1627 and treasurer in 1628.

Discovery of the circulation of the blood

When, in 1615, Harvey was elected to the Lumleian lectureship in the College of Physicians he made detailed preparations for his course of lectures (the notes survive). He had no special interest in the heart, but was aware that for several centuries its primacy in the body, asserted by Aristotle and defended by scholastic philosophers, had been challenged by the medical men, who based their views on Galen (who believed that the brain was the primary organ). Two things were important in Harvey's approach to the heart. First, his notion of anatomy was the Aristotelian one that knowledge of a part of the body was primarily knowledge of its function. Second, as a pupil of Fabricius in Padua he saw that this function could be seen most clearly in a range of examples: that is, in different animals. Whatever it was that hearts did, their characteristic and identifying action must be present in all cases.

Harvey's preparation for his lectures included vivisectional experiments. There was nothing new about this, especially in the case of the heart, as its motion was unique: being involuntary, very obvious, immediately necessary for life, and not muscular (since all muscles were held to move with voluntary motion). Harvey's first concern was to identify the two traditional phases of the heart's action, systole (contraction) and diastole (expansion). He could not do so. The exposed heart of a living animal rose up vigorously and then subsided, without obvious change in size. Harvey tackled the matter from theory. The vigorous erection of the heart seemed like its purposeful action. In Galenic theory the purpose of the heart was to initiate the pulse, a flow of arterial blood into the arteries. It accordingly expanded vigorously, drawing in blood from the large veins, and then subsided as a wave of forcible expansion—the pulse—passed down the arterial coats, drawing blood from the collapsing heart. Harvey sought confirmation of this view by puncturing the principal artery and observing how the spurting of blood from it correlated with the rise and fall of the heart. He found that as the heart rose up with its vigorous motion, so the blood leapt from the hole in the artery. This was inconsistent with the Galenic doctrine that blood moved into the arteries as the heart passively contracted after its forcible diastole. Harvey concluded that the active phase of the heart's action was a forceful systole—its rising up in the vivisected animal—which produced the pulse by pushing the blood into the arteries as it contracted.

Harvey was proud of his new doctrine about the forceful systole and pulse and argued in the lectures that it corrected an ancient mistake. He continued with his experiments while giving the first few lectures, as his modifications in his notes show. His new doctrine was a radical departure from the accepted professional Galenism of the college and not all the members accepted it. Harvey represented himself as conducting an academic disputation on the topic, with the president of the college, John Argent, acting as the presiding master. Harvey strove to convince his audience by emphasizing the force of blood emerging from the heart, and his emendations to his notes for the lectures show that he now chose a stronger verb for the spurting of the blood from the punctured artery.

Harvey also emphasized the quantity of blood emerging from the forceful systole. He made a rough estimate of the amount of blood contained in the left ventricle of the relaxed—expanded—heart, and of the amount ejected as the ventricle contracted. However modest he made his estimate of the amount ejected at every beat, he soon saw, given a heart beating more than seventy times a minute, that in a whole day the total would be impossibly large. Impossible, that is, because Galenic theory held that the arterial blood from the heart was absorbed as necessary by the tissues; and that venous blood was supplied to the heart by the conversion of ingested food into blood in the liver. No amount of food could supply this amount of venous blood and the arterial blood was emerging from the heart in quantities too great to be absorbed by the tissues.

In his efforts to convince his audience of his new doctrine of the forceful systole Harvey had been led into a crisis. He could not say where all the arterial blood went, nor whence came the venous. As he sought for an answer he had in mind the newly discovered structures in the veins which seemed to slow down the centrifugal flow of blood from the liver to the parts of the body so that it would not accumulate there. These structures looked like valves, and Galen had argued that valves were open in one direction and allowed a small, controlled, flow in the other. In the case of the valves in the veins the controlled flow was towards the parts of the body from the central liver. Harvey suddenly saw that the open direction of the valves was towards the centre of the body, and that the motion of the blood was from the ends of the arteries to the beginnings of the veins, which terminated in the vena cava, returning blood to the heart.

The De motu cordis

Harvey had given the first of the Lumleian lectures in 1616 and the changes he made in his notes for them, indicating his discovery of the forceful systole and circulation, seem to date from the second delivery of the lectures in 1618. For more than nine years he argued in favour of the circulation with his colleagues and demonstrated it in the lectures. The conventional academic procedures of the day meant that this discussion took the shape of a disputed question, in which his opponents had the opportunity to challenge the form of his arguments, his authorities, and the status of his observations.

This process prepared Harvey for the writing of the book in which he announced the discovery of the circulation. It appeared in 1628, printed by Fitzer in Frankfurt. Harvey was not on hand to see it through the press, and there were many errors in the set type. The erratum sheet that accompanied some copies is now rare. Harvey called his book Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus. As this title suggests it is a formal academic exercise about two things, the motion of the heart and that of the blood. That the context is the animal world indicates that this was a philosophical enquiry, not medical. His philosophy was derived from Aristotle and Fabricius and was directed at discovering what hearts are and what they do.

Harvey knew how radical his new doctrine was and that its reception in the College of Physicians had been mixed. He was obliged, both in the lectures and in the book, to proceed with great care in putting his case. Only rigorous and agreed academic procedures would convince physicians educated in a university. Conventionally in anatomical commentary any novel finding was located almost in the last place, so that the reader was already familiar with the authorities and their arguments before judging the new finding. Had Harvey begun his book by announcing the discovery he would have lost much of the force of his argument. He began, therefore, with an account of his first discovery, the forceful systole and true nature of the pulse. This was both logically and historically prior to the circulation. The first half of De motu cordis is therefore devoted to establishing the forceful systole. Then Harvey takes the reader through the moment of crisis that had occurred after he had made his calculations of the amount of blood leaving the heart and explains how he resolved the crisis. He states the thesis about circulation formally, with propositions that are shown to have certain consequences. The remainder of the book is taken up with certain observations that could be explained best on the assumption of circulation.


As in the College of Physicians, so in the world at large, reactions to the doctrines of the forceful systole and pulse were mixed. Almost no one accepted both in the way Harvey wanted them to. The two doctrines were generally separated, and accepted or rejected on their own. Yet when Harvey died some sort of consensus about the fact of circulation had been reached and produced the biggest change in medical theory since the Alexandrian discovery of the nervous system, about a thousand years earlier.

But the arguments about Harvey's doctrines were not simply between those who could see the truth and those who could not. The main argument against Harvey was that circulation had no medical use. This argument was used at two levels. First, medical philosophers like Caspar Hofmann asserted that circulation had no purpose, no Aristotelian final cause: it was therefore incapable of proper demonstration in a philosophical sense. Hofmann concluded that Harvey was not a philosopher, but a mere accountant, totting up quantities (of blood leaving the heart); philosophers, with Aristotle, thought that mathematics could not uncover essences. At the second level educated medical practitioners, like Harvey's countryman James Primrose and the French anatomist Jean Riolan, found that a Galenic understanding of how the body worked served them fairly well in practice. If the blood circulated the basis of practice would be destroyed as the humours of the body would be mixed together and could not be changed or evacuated separately, and there would be no basis for the letting of blood.

Harvey understood these objections. Although an Aristotelian, he could not give a final cause of circulation and was driven to say that it had to be enough to show that a thing is, despite being unable to say what it is for. He had no convincing answer to the charge of destroying the basis of medical practice. Harvey's doctrine, because radical, was isolated; opponents such as Primrose could use all the authority and arguments of Galenic physiology and its vehicle, an Aristotelian natural philosophy, that reached and explained all the phenomena of the physical world.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the eventual consensus. One was generational. Students were attracted to the idea of circulation, partly because it was radical. When they became teachers themselves the notion that the blood circulated was more popular. Many of these students were anyway being educated at a time when attacks were being made on the old orthodoxies of natural philosophy on which the theory of medicine rested, and Harvey could be seen as part of those attacks. More important, René Descartes, the greatest of the neoteric philosophers, accepted that the blood circulated. It seemed to him that the circulation was an excellent example of how the body worked in a purely mechanical way and indeed he used it in his Discourse on Method (1637) as his most important example of mechanism. He was obliged to deny Harvey's account of the forceful systole because the parts of the contracting heart seemed to move closer to each other by attraction, a species of motion impermissible in mechanism. He substituted a heat driven forceful diastole in which the blood entering the heart was vaporized. The vapour expanded the heart and forced its way into the arteries, where it condensed. Descartes' works were very widely read, and this transformed version of Harvey's doctrine of circulation must have reached a bigger audience than it would otherwise have done, ironically in tandem with a neoteric philosophy that Harvey despised.

Court business

Harvey's abilities were not limited to experimental anatomy. Before or early in 1618 he was appointed physician-extraordinary to James I; his senior colleague was Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne. When James died in 1625 Harvey's appointment continued under Charles I, and the two men developed a friendship. Harvey was able to demonstrate to Charles a virtually exposed beating heart in the young Viscount Montgomery, and Charles provided deer which Harvey dissected while working on his book on animal reproduction. In 1630 Charles ordered Harvey to accompany the young duke of Lennox on a grand tour, and while we know that Harvey was in Paris in September, he was back in London in October and December. In February 1632 he was in Spain, and recorded the destructive effects of war that he had seen on his travels. When Charles progressed to Scotland in 1633 for his coronation Harvey went with him as royal physician, and was perhaps a witness when Charles demonstrated his royal line by touching for the king's evil. It was court business too when in the following year Harvey examined some ‘witches’ of Burnley. The historical literature here does not always distinguish the English term ‘witch’ from older European terms relating to intelligences less material than man. James I had in 1597 published in Edinburgh a dialogue about ‘demons’, a category universally accepted in pre-Reformation Europe, but not one necessarily co-terminous with the English word ‘witch’. Possibly Calvinist Scotland entertained different ideas about witches than did early seventeenth-century London; at all events Charles showed less antagonism to them than his father might have done and ordered a medical enquiry, under Harvey, to investigate their physical normality or abnormality. The point at issue was largely to determine whether they had supernumerary nipples to feed their familiars. Harvey, William Clowes, Alexander Read, and the midwives who conducted the examination concluded that they were normal. The women were pardoned by Charles.

It was court business too when the king in 1635 ordered Harvey to perform an autopsy on the body of Old Parr, probably a Shropshire tenant of Thomas Howard, the earl of Arundel. Parr was reputed to have been born in 1483 and so to have lived through the lives of ten sovereigns (and the Reformation) when Arundel brought him to London for the amusement of the king. He appeared vigorous for a man of 152, joked about doing penance for adultery at 100, carefully evaded questions as to his religion, and died before the year was out. Harvey dissected the body in the presence of some important physicians of the time and declared that the cause of Old Parr's death was removal to London and his way of life rather than anything pathological in the body.

In April 1636 Harvey left England as part of an embassy to the emperor Ferdinand under the earl of Arundel. The purpose was to secure the rights of Charles's nephew, Prince Charles Louis, as elector, and Harvey was chosen as physician to the large retinue, probably because of his friendship with both Charles and the earl. On 11 May the party reached Nuremberg and on the 18th Harvey gave a demonstration of the circulation of the blood before Caspar Hofmann, his principal opponent after Riolan. Hofmann was not convinced and it was here that he argued that Harvey's quantitative argument was a mere accountant's trick and not a philosophical demonstration; like all of Harvey's opponents he argued that a doctrine of circulation had no medical use, either in theory or practice.

Charles I's favours to Harvey culminated in Harvey becoming physician-in-ordinary on 6 December 1639. His duties included accompanying the king on three journeys to Scotland and caused him to be absent on many occasions from the College of Physicians and St Bartholomew's Hospital. Harvey does not seem to have been much interested in religion or politics, but had bitter words to say about would-be revolutionaries, whether in philosophy or civil life. He accompanied the king as he gathered his army and was present at the battle of Edgehill. Harvey had charge of the young prince of Wales and duke of York, and is said to have read a book under a hedge until the artillery came uncomfortably close. At Oxford with the king, Harvey was incorporated DM on 7 December 1642, and in the following year was by royal command made warden of Merton College following the departure of Sir Nathaniel Brent. After the surrender of Oxford in 1646 Harvey returned to London and lived with his brothers.

In 1649 Harvey made his only printed reply to his opponents in the form of two addresses to Riolan. It was prompted by two publications in which Riolan denied circulation in Harvey's sense and claimed as his own a much reduced doctrine of a circulation through anastomoses of the major vessels only. Harvey's reply, the Exercitatio anatomica de circulatione sanguinis, reviewed the history of the controversy and offered some new experiments; he recognized, however, Riolan's need to defend the professional Galenism of the medical corporations.

De generatione animalium

Harvey's other major work was on what we call animal reproduction, the Exercitationes de generatione animalium of 1651. He had been working on it for many years, though would probably not have published it but for the determination of his friend George Ent. Like the book on the pulse and circulation this is an academic exercise, or rather a series of small, formal, exercises, each limited in scope to an aspect of the whole topic. It is again Aristotelian in its methods, and Harvey says that his starting point is the adult animal and that the investigation will be into the causes that make the adult possible. Again Harvey used a large number of animals and where before he had sought for a common understanding of the heart, he was now looking for the essence of the egg.

By the time he was writing the final version of the book on the generation of animals, Harvey's thoughts had changed on a topic central to both generation and circulation: the blood. While at Oxford with the king he continued to work on fertilized eggs and doubtless reflected on the reception accorded to his doctrine of circulation. He had shown that it was the same blood that circulated, and that arterial blood was not produced in the heart from venous blood by the addition of spirits as traditional medicine held. Harvey was no mechanist, but he could not allow that the blood contained spirit, or that the vital or natural faculty of the soul moved the heart, as so many of his opponents said. What prompted the heart into action, he came to think, was the blood itself. It was the blood too that was the first thing to be seen in the developing egg, in a pulsating point that was at first so small that it disappeared as it contracted. A primal active blood was at the beginning of the cycles both of generation and circulation; it was vital and constantly moving with an expansive force for which Harvey even used the Aristotelian analogy of boiling potage. This took him dangerously close to arguments used against him that denied his quantitive argument on the assumption that the blood merely expanded and contracted within the heart without leaving it. Despite the danger Harvey retained the analogy because he could use Aristotle's definition of nature as an internal principle of motion. If he could, Harvey always used Aristotle's principles (and so was traditionalist in a sense) even though in working them out to the level of practice he disagreed with Aristotle's conclusions (that is, Harvey was also ‘a modern’; although it is not a terminology that Harvey adopted).

By now, preparing the final version of the book on generation, Harvey had seen a great deal of the controversy over the circulation and had failed to convince major figures like Riolan and Hofmann. He had come to despair of philosophical sceptics and the neoteric philosophers. As an old man he now wanted to defend his method of acquiring knowledge—what we would call research—which he believed had helped him in his discovery of the circulation and which he felt to be threatened as Aristotle's natural philosophy was vanishing from the schools. Accordingly a part of De generatione animalium was given over to a consideration of how many observations of sensory particulars could lead to the creation of a universal in the mind. Harvey now argued that philosophical induction could indeed lead to universals, which could in turn produce a kind of demonstration.

There were still some Aristotelian philosophers who would have agreed with him, but the new natural philosophers believed in a particulate, mechanical world quite devoid of local purposeful action (they did not deny that God had originally made purposeful action in it). In such a world there could be no final cause and no demonstrative knowledge. It was now often argued that medicine was an art, not a science, thus swinging the pendulum to one side of a debate that had been initiated with the successful search for the new Aristotle of the late twelfth century and the new Galen of the late thirteenth. Intellectual systems, like that of Aristotle, came under suspicion because rationality was uncorrected by observation. Sensory observation gave conviction but the knowledge it provided was only probable, that is, that which could not be built up into a rational system.

Experiment was a special case of sensory observation, and here Harvey played a more important role than his discussion of method in De generatione animalium would suggest. The medical experiment had been a method of demonstration since medieval physicians and philosophers had read of Galen's demonstrations in Rome in the second century. Anatomists demonstrated hollow organs by inflation and injection, and Harvey knew in detail the work of sixteenth-century anatomists who, on the Galenic model, had vivisected animals to show movements that were invisible in the dead animal. They showed the development of embryos in the uterus by vivisection of pregnant bitches and illustrated Galen's doctrines by exposing and sometimes excising the beating heart. Harvey differed in having a research programme and making systematic dissections and vivisections in order to understand the heart. The medical experiment was central to experimental philosophy. Harvey drew upon an old medical tradition and argued the case for the forceful systole and circulation experimentally. The European battle for and against Harvey was most often experimental. Medical experiments and apparatus influenced wider and often later philosophical experiments. Even the great rationalist Descartes struggled to prove his version of Harvey's doctrines by means of experiments drawn from the medical tradition.

Last days and reputation

The old Harvey did not fit comfortably into the new Commonwealth. Early in the civil war his lodging had been ransacked and the loss of notes from much work on the generation of ‘insects’ was a great blow to him. He was temporarily banished from London by parliament because of his connections with the king. His royalist brothers, Daniel and Eliab, with whom he was now lodging, were fined large amounts of money. Disliking the political atmosphere of Cambridge, Harvey chose to be remembered in the College of Physicians, though even here there were some who preferred to ignore him. Harvey's gift to the college, a library, was completed on 2 February 1654; a statue of him had already been erected. He was elected to the presidency of the college on 30 September 1654, but declined because of his age. In 1656 Harvey gave his estate at Burmarsh, Romney Marsh, Kent, to the college. Harvey died, apparently from a stroke, on 3 June 1657 at a house of his brother Eliab, either at Roehampton, or at Cockaine House in London. According to Aubrey, Harvey prepared himself for death on finding himself unable to speak. His last acts were to indicate to his apothecary to let blood from his tongue (a therapy inconsistent with the circulation) and to give the watch which he had used in experiments to one of his nephews. He was buried on 26 June 1657 in the family vault at Hempstead church, in Essex. On 18 October 1883 (St Luke's day) his body was moved and placed in a sarcophagus in the Harvey chapel of Hempstead church, where a memorial was set on the north wall of the transept. The Royal College of Physicians commemorates Harvey with an annual oration.

Harvey has been justly celebrated as the author of a major medical discovery. Nineteenth-century historians tended to assess Harvey according to contemporary ideals and saw Harvey as a ‘scientist’, either patiently accumulating evidence or endowed with early but authentic scientific spirit. He was universally admired for overcoming the dead weight of ancient authority and revealing the truth. His contemporaries were assessed on their ability or failure to recognize this truth when presented with it. In contrast, scholarship has since the 1950s been more inclined to explain Harvey's work by treating it in its historical context. Harvey discovered something which became accepted as a physical truth; however, this was far from the case during his own time. Then his work had no value at all for the many intelligent and earnest men who opposed him. Much scholarship at the end of the twentieth century was therefore concerned with the processes by which the validity of Harvey's discovery came to be accepted, and its immense significance acknowledged.


  • G. Keynes, The life of William Harvey [new edn] (1978)
  • R. French, William Harvey's natural philosophy (1994)
  • R. G. Frank, Harvey and the Oxford physiologists (1980)
  • G. Whitteridge, William Harvey and the circulation of the blood (1971)
  • G. Whitteridge, ed., The anatomical lectures of William Harvey (1964)
  • D. G. Bates, ‘Harvey's account of his “discovery”’, Medical History, 36 (1992), 361–78
  • J. Bylebyl, ed., William Harvey and his age (1979)
  • G. Keynes, A bibliography of the writings of William Harvey, 1587–1657, 2nd edn (1953)


  • BL, prescriptions and papers, Sloane MSS 230A, 260A, 486, 520; Add. MS 36308
  • RCP Lond., papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., prescriptions for John Aubrey
  • RCP Lond., letters to Lord Feilding
  • RCP Lond., corresp. relating to B. Harvey


  • attrib. D. Mytens, oils, 1627, NPG [see illus.]
  • attrib. R. Gaywood, etching, 1649, BM, RCP Lond., RCS Eng.
  • possibly by W. van Bemmel, oils, 1656, U. Glas., Hunterian College
  • oils, 1666, RCP Lond.
  • E. Marshall, bust on monument, 1719, St Andrew's Church, Hempstead, Essex
  • W. Faithorne, bust on pedestal, BM, NPG
  • attrib. R. Gaywood, etching, priv. coll.
  • R. Gaywood, line print (with Lord Bacon), BL; repro. in Eighteen books of the secrets of art and nature (1660)
  • line print (after bust by W. Faithorne), repro. in De generatione animalium (1653)
  • oils (after etching attrib. R. Gaywood), NPG

Wealth at Death

considerable; left £1800 in bequests and annuities totalling £136; remainder to brother: will

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)