Home  »  Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals  »  VII. The Blood Passes Through the Substance of the Lungs from the Right Ventricle of the Heart into the Pulmonary Veins and Left Ventricle

William Harvey (1578–1657). On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

VII. The Blood Passes Through the Substance of the Lungs from the Right Ventricle of the Heart into the Pulmonary Veins and Left Ventricle

THAT this is possible, and that there is nothing to prevent it from being so, appears when we reflect on the way in which water permeating the earth produces springs and rivulets, or when we speculate on the means by which the sweat passes through the skin, or the urine through the substance of the kidneys. It is well known that persons who use the Spa waters or those of La Madonna, in the territories of Padua, or others of an acidulous or vitriolated nature, or who simply swallow drinks by the gallon, pass all off again within an hour or two by the bladder. Such a quantity of liquid must take some short time in the concoction: it must pass through the liver (it is allowed by all that the juices of the food we consume pass twice through this organ in the course of the day); it must flow through the veins, through the tissues of the kidneys, and through the ureters into the bladder.

To those, therefore, whom I hear denying that the blood, aye, the whole mass of the blood, may pass through the substance of the lungs, even as the nutritive juices percolate the liver, asserting such a proposition to be impossible, and by no means to be entertained as credible, I reply, with the poet, that they are of that race of men who, when they will, assent full readily, and when they will not, by no manner of means; who, when their assent is wanted, fear, and when it is not, fear not to give it.

The substance of the liver is extremely dense, so is that of the kidney; the lungs, however, are of a much looser texture, and if compared with the kidneys are absolutely spongy. In the liver there is no forcing, no impelling power; in the lungs the blood is forced on by the pulse of the right ventricle, the necessary effect of whose impulse is the distension of the vessels and the pores of the lungs. And then the lungs, in respiration, are perpetually rising and falling: motions, the effect of which must needs be to open and shut the pores and vessels, precisely as in the case of a sponge, and of parts having a spongy structure, when they are alternately compressed and again are suffered to expand. The liver, on the contrary, remains at rest, and is never seen to be dilated or constricted. Lastly, if no one denies the possibility in man, oxen, and the larger animals generally, of the whole of the ingested juices passing through the liver, in order to reach the vena cava, for this reason, that if nourishment is to go on, these juices must needs get into the veins, and there is no other way but the one indicated, why should not the same arguments be held of avail for the passage of the blood in adults through the lungs? Why not maintain, with Columbus, that skilful and learned anatomist, that it must be so from the capacity and structure of the pulmonary vessels, and from the fact of the pulmonary veins and ventricle corresponding with them, being always found to contain blood, which must needs have come from the veins, and by no other passage save through the lungs? Columbus, and we also, from what precedes, from dissections, and other arguments, conceive the thing to be clear. But as there are some who admit nothing unless upon authority, let them learn that the truth I am contending for can be confirmed from Galen’s own words, namely, that not only may the blood be transmitted from the pulmonary artery into the pulmonary veins, then into the left ventricle of the heart, and from thence into the arteries of the body, but that this is effected by the ceaseless pulsation of the heart and the motion of the lungs in breathing.

There are, as everyone knows, three sigmoid or semilunar valves situated at the orifice of the pulmonary artery, which effectually prevent the blood sent into the vessel from returning into the cavity of the heart. Now Galen, explaining the use of these valves, and the necessity for them, employs the following language: “There is everywhere a mutual anastomosis and inosculation of the arteries with the veins, and they severally transmit both blood and spirit, by certain invisible and undoubtedly very narrow passages. Now if the mouth of the pulmonary artery had stood in like manner continually open, and nature had found no contrivance for closing it when requisite, and opening it again, it would have been impossible that the blood could ever have passed by the invisible and delicate mouths, during the contractions of the thorax, into the arteries; for all things are not alike readily attracted or repelled; but that which is light is more readily drawn in, the instrument being dilated, and forced out again when it is contracted, than that which is heavy; and in like manner is anything drawn more rapidly along an ample conduit, and again driven forth, than it is through a narrow tube. But when the thorax is contracted the pulmonary veins, which are in the lungs, being driven inwardly, and powerfully compressed on every side, immediately force out some of the spirit they contain, and at the same time assume a certain portion of blood by those subtle mouths, a thing that could never come to pass were the blood at liberty to flow back into the heart through the great orifice of the pulmonary artery. But its return through this great opening being prevented, when it is compressed on every side, a certain portion of it distils into the pulmonary veins by the minute orifices mentioned.” And shortly afterwards, in the next chapter, he says: “The more the thorax contracts, the more it strives to force out the blood, the more exactly do these membranes (viz., the semilunar valves) close up the mouth of the vessel, and suffer nothing to regurgitate.” The same fact he has also alluded to in a preceding part of the tenth chapter: “Were there no valves, a threefold inconvenience would result, so that the blood would then perform this lengthened course in vain; it would flow inwards during the disastoles of the lungs and fill all their arteries; but in the systoles, in the manner of the tide, it would ever and anon, like the Euripus, flow backwards and forwards by the same way, with a reciprocating motion, which would nowise suit the blood. This, however, may seem a matter of little moment: but if it meantime appear that the function of respiration suffer, then I think it would be looked upon as no trifle, etc.” Shortly afterwards he says: “And then a third inconvenience, by no means to be thought lightly of, would follow, were the blood moved backwards during the expirations, had not our Maker instituted those supplementary membranes.” In the eleventh chapter he concludes: “That they (the valves) have all a common use, and that it is to prevent regurgitation or backward motion; each, however, having a proper function, the one set drawing matters from the heart, and preventing their return, the other drawing matters into the heart, and preventing their escape from it. For nature never intended to distress the heart with needless labour, neither to bring aught into the organ which it had been better to have kept away, nor to take from it again aught which it was requisite should be brought. Since, then, there are four orifices in all, two in either ventricle, one of these induces, the other educes.” And again he says: “Farther, since there is one vessel, which consists of a simple covering implanted in the heart, and another which is double, extending from it (Galen is here speaking of the right side of the heart, but I extend his observations to the left side also), a kind of reservoir had to be provided, to which both belonging, the blood should be drawn in by one, and sent out by the other.”

Galen adduces this argument for the transit of the blood by the right ventricle from the vena cava into the lungs; but we can use it with still greater propriety, merely changing the terms, for the passage of the blood from the veins through the heart into the arteries. From Galen, however, that great man, that father of physicians, it clearly appears that the blood passes through the lungs from the pulmonary artery into the minute branches of the pulmonary veins, urged to this both by the pulses of the heart and by the motions of the lungs and thorax; that the heart, moreover, is incessantly receiving and expelling the blood by and from its ventricles, as from a magazine or cistern, and for this end it is furnished with four sets of valves, two serving for the induction and two for the eduction of the blood, lest, like the Euripus, it should be incommodiously sent hither and thither, or flow back into the cavity which it should have quitted, or quit the part where its presence was required, and so the heart might be oppressed with labour in vain, and the office of the lungs be interfered with. Finally, our position that the blood is continually permeating from the right to the left ventricle, from the vena cava into the aorta, through the porosities of the lungs, plainly appears from this, that since the blood is incessantly sent from the right ventricle into the lungs by the pulmonary artery, and in like manner is incessantly drawn from the lungs into the left ventricle, as appears from what precedes and the position of the valves, it cannot do otherwise than pass through continuously. And then, as the blood is incessantly flowing into the right ventricle of the heart, and is continually passed out from the left, as appears in like manner, and as is obvious, both to sense and reason, it is impossible that the blood can do otherwise than pass continually from the vena cava into the aorta.

Dissection consequently shows distinctly what takes place in the majority of animals, and indeed in all, up to the period of their maturity; and that the same thing occurs in adults is equally certain, both from Galen’s words, and what has already been said, only that in the former the transit is effected by open and obvious passages, in the latter by the hidden porosities of the lungs and the minute inosculations of vessels. It therefore appears that, although one ventricle of the heart, the left to wit, would suffice for the distribution of the blood over the body, and its education from the vena cava, as indeed is done in those creatures that have no lungs, nature, nevertheless, when she ordained that the same blood should also percolate the lungs, saw herself obliged to add the right ventricle, the pulse of which should force the blood from the vena cava through the lungs into the cavity of the left ventricle. In this way, it may be said, that the right ventricle is made for the sake of the lungs, and for the transmission of the blood through them, not for their nutrition; for it were unreasonable to suppose that the lungs should require so much more copious a supply of nutriment, and that of so much purer and more spirituous a nature as coming immediately from the ventricle of the heart, that either the brain, with its peculiarly pure substance, or the eyes, with their lustrous and truly admirable structure, or the flesh of the heart itself, which is more suitably nourished by the coronary artery.