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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 13. Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood

The second man of outstanding genius in British science in the seventeenth century was Harvey, who, like Newton, worked in one of the two sciences which, in Stewart times, were, to some extent, ahead of all the others. Harvey, “the little choleric man” as Aubrey calls him, was educated at Cambridge and at Padua and was in his thirty-eighth year when, in his lectures on anatomy, he expounded his new doctrine of the circulation of the blood to the college of Physicians, although his Exercitatio on this subject did not appear till 1628. His notes for the lectures are now in the British Museum. He was physician to Charles I; and it is on record how, during the battle of Edgehill, he looked after the young princes as he sat reading a book under a hedge a little removed from the fight.

In the chain of evidence of his convincing demonstration of the circulation of the blood, one link, only to be supplied by the invention of the compound microscope, was missing. This, the discovery of the capillaries, was due to Malpighi, who was amongst the earliest anatomists to apply the compound microscope to animal tissues. Still, as Dryden has it,

  • The circling streams once thought but pools of blood—
  • (Whether life’s fuel or the body’s food),
  • From dark oblivion Harvey’s name shall save.
  • Harvey was happy in two respects as regards his discovery. It was, in the main and especially in England, recognised as proven in his own lifetime, and, again, no one of credit claimed or asserted the claim of others to priority. In research, all enquirers stand on steps others have built up; but, in this, the most important of single contributions to physiology, the credit is Harvey’s and almost Harvey’s alone. His other great work, Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium is of secondary importance. It shows marvellous powers of observation and very laborious research; but, although, to a great extent, it led the way in embryology, it was shortly superseded by works of those who had the compound microscope at their command. Cowley, a man of wide culture, wrote an Ode on Harvey in which his achievement was contrasted with a failing common to scientific men of his own time, and, so far as we can see, of all time:

  • Harvey sought for Truth in Truth’s own Book
  • The Creatures, which by God Himself was writ;
  • And wisely thought ’t was fit,
  • Not to read Comments only upon it,
  • But on th’ original it self to look.
  • Methinks in Arts great Circle, others stand
  • Lock’t up together, Hand in Hand,
  • Every one leads as he is led,
  • The same bare path they tread,
  • A Dance like Fairies a Fantastick round,
  • But neither change their motion, nor their ground:
  • Had Harvey to this Road confin’d his wit,
  • His noble Circle of the Blood, had been untroden yet.
  • Harvey’s death is recorded in a characteristic seventeenth century sentence, taken from the unpublished pages of Baldwin Harvey’s Bustorum Aliquot Reliquiae:

  • Of William Harvey, the most fortunate anatomist, the blood ceased to move on the third day of the Ides of June, in the year 1657, the continuous movement of which in all men, moreover he had most truly asserted …
  • E [char].