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William Harvey (1578 - 1657)

Susan Wiegand

What would it have been like to be a scientist in the time of Shakespeare? Best seats at the Globe Theater and invitations to command performances alongside the King and Queen? Why not, if you are married to the daughter of the Queen's physician? Better yet if you have been appointed physician to the King himself.

By all accounts, William Harvey led a charmed life. Harvey, oldest of seven children, was born in 1578 in Kent, England, at the halfway point of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a voracious student, earning his bachelor's degree in 1597 from Cambridge University. He continued his schooling at the University of Padua, the foremost medical school of the time, where he studied under the esteemed scientist and surgeon, Hieronymus Fabricius. Fabricius, an ardent anatomist, had observed the one-way valves in veins, but had not figured out exactly what their role was. The popular belief of the day held that blood was circulated by a sort of pulsing action of the arteries.

Harvey returned to England in 1602 and married Elizabeth Browne, who was the daughter of one of the Queen's physicians. Harvey himself obtained a fellowship at the Royal College of Physicians. In 1618 he was appointed as a physician to the court of James I.

His research into the circulatory system and his other lines of inquiry were generously sponsored and encouraged by James I's successor, King Charles I, to whom Harvey was later appointed personal physician. By studying animals given to him by his regal employer, Harvey eventually developed an accurate theory of how the heart and circulatory system operated. He published his theories in 1628 in his famous book "On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals," which made him notorious throughout Europe.

But William Harvey was not satisfied with being the foremost anatomist of his day. He was intrigued by everything about the body, and at some point turned his attention to reproduction. He speculated that humans and other mammals must reproduce through the joining of an egg and sperm. No other theory made sense. It was 200 years before a mammalian egg was finally observed, but Harvey's theory was so compelling and so well thought out that the world assumed he was right long before the discovery was finally made.

Harvey remained a physician at St. Bartholomew's until 1643. He maintained his college lectureship until 1656, the year before his death, missing by a moment the dismantling under Cromwell of the monarchy that had supported his research throughout his life.


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