Early Life and Education
William Harvey was born in Folkestone, Kent on 1 April 1578, the eldest child of a farmer and carrier, Thomas Harvey and his second wife, Joan, née Halke. He had six brothers and three sisters, and his brothers were successful merchants and courtiers who provided him material assistance during his career.
Harvey was educated at The King’s School, Canterbury and then at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. His studies were supported by a Matthew Parker scholarship, founded by the Archbishop of Canterbury to support someone born in Kent and educated at King’s to study medicine.
After completing his degree at Cambridge, Harvey studied medicine at the University of Padua in Italy, obtaining his MD degree in 1602. At Padua, he was tutored by the scientist and surgeon Hieronymus Fabricius (Girolamo Fabrizi of Acquapendente). Fabricius, who was fascinated by anatomy, recognised that veins in the human body had one-way valves, but was puzzled as to their function. Harvey would take the foundation of Fabricius’s teaching and go on to find out what part the valves played in the circulation of blood through the body.
Returning from Italy in 1602, Harvey established himself as a physician in London. He was not admitted to the Royal College of Physicians until 1604, having initially failed in his admission examinations. Having finally gained admission, in 1604 he married Elizabeth Browne, daughter of Lancelot Browne, one of the physicians to Elizabeth I and James I of England, at St Sepulchre’s.
In 1607, Harvey became a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and, in 1609, was appointed physician to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. In 1613, he was appointed a censor, one of the College’s examiners, and reappointed thereafter in 1625 and 1627, when he also became an elect. He subsequently became the College’s Treasurer (1628). In 1618, Harvey followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps and became a physician to James I and then to James’ son Charles when he became king. Both James and Charles took a close interest in and encouraged Harvey’s research, with Charles providing deer for Harvey to dissect.
Harvey’s research was furthered through the dissection of animals. He himself noted conducting a post-mortem on his wife, Elizabeth’s, pet parrot. Harvey first revealed his findings at the Royal College of Physicians in 1616, through his Lumleian lectureship. His ideas were received with great interest in England, although they were greeted with some scepticism as well because they contradicted the ideas of Galen, who believed blood was generated in liver, then sent around the body. The Church, along with many physicians, supported Galen’s ideas, making it difficult for Harvey, whose theories on the circulatory system marked a significant shift away from the traditional ideas in the Renaissance.
In 1628, Harvey published his theories in a book entitled Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals), where he explained how the heart propelled the blood in a circular course through the body. As younger generations of doctors entered the College, an eventual consensus began to grow in favour of Harvey’s ideas, and other thinkers, such as René Descartes, began to accept his ideas, with Descartes using Harvey’s proposal for how circulation worked as an example in his Discourse on Method (1637).
Later Career at Court and Death
As physician to King Charles I, Harvey played a significant role at Court in the 1630s. He attended the coronation, examined ‘witches’ (he and the other examiners found them ‘normal’), and travelled both with the King and with his ambassadors. One of these trips to Germany allowed him to provide a demonstration on the circulation of blood to one of his two principal opponents, Caspar Hofmann, although Hofmann maintained that the doctrine of circulation had no medical use.
During the Civil War, in 1643, Harvey was made warden of Merton College, Oxford. A few years later, in 1646, Oxford was surrendered, and Harvey returned to London to live with his brothers. During this time, Harvey continued to defend his theory of circulation, making a reply in-print to the other of his principal opponents, Jean Riolan, entitled Exercitatio anatomica de circulatione sanguinis (1649).
Harvey also continued his work on another important aspect of medical science. Although often overshadowed by his work on the circulatory system, Harvey was the first to suggest that mammals reproduced via fertilisation of an egg by sperm, in his Exercitationes de generatione animalium (1651). He had worked on this subject throughout his time at Court, including at Oxford, dissecting animals provided by the King himself.
During the Commonwealth, Harvey was temporarily banished from London by Parliament because of his association with the now-dead King, and his Royalist brothers, Daniel and Eliab, were fined. In this period, Harvey began looking to his legacy and gifted the Royal College of Physicians a library, which was completed in February 1654. He was elected to the Presidency of the College in that same year, but declined because of his age.
Harvey died, likely from a stroke, on 2 June 1657 at the house of his brother Eliab. He had no children, but left an annuity to his brother-in-law, Galen Browne, who was also a physician. He is buried in the Harvey chapel of the Church of St Andrew, Hempstead, Essex. The William Harvey Hospital in Ashford is named after him.
Bennell, John. ‘Browne, Lancelot (d. 1605)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 September 2004. Date accessed 4 February 2022.
French, Roger. ‘Harvey, William (1578-1657)’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 23 September 2004. Date accessed 4 February 2022.
Pelling, Margaret, and Frances White. ‘HARVEY, William.’ Physicians and Irregular Medical Practitioners in London 1550-1640 Database. London: Centre for Metropolitan History, 2004. British History Online. Web. Date accessed 8 February 2022. .