Ceaseless motion: William Harvey’s experimentations in circulation

William Harvey was the doctor and anatomist who put the heart at the centre of human existence.

Ceaseless motion: William Harvey’s experimentations in circulation

An anatomist and physician, William Harvey possessed an insatiable curiosity to discover the inner workings of all living creatures. He lived through an extraordinary age of scientific revolution, to which he would contribute with his own discovery on the heart and blood circulation.

Within his London home, Harvey conducted countless experiments and observed the beating hearts of many animals, including dogs, eels, crows and even wasps. As an anatomist, he was able to dissect the bodies of hanged men in the anatomy theatre at the Royal College of Physicians.

Illustrations of Harvey’s experiments from De motu cordis, 1628.
Illustrations of Harvey’s experiments from De Motu Cordis, 1628
Portrait of William Harvey
Portrait of William Harvey (1578-1657) unknown artist

In 1628, after 10 years of painstaking solitary research, Harvey at last published his discovery in a book, known as De motu cordis. His idea, that blood is pumped around the body by the heart in a state of ceaseless motion, proved highly controversial to some, challenging 1,500 years of established scientific and medical belief. His research revealed that blood was not ‘concocted in the liver’, but circulated from the heart. In doing so he changed the conception of physiology, and life itself, forever. 

Harvey encouraged his fellow physicians ‘to search and study out the secrets of nature by way of experiment’. His legacy of curiosity, research and discovery has had a lasting impact on the practice and science of medicine.  The discoveries led to the birth of many medical disciplines, from cardiology to modern haematology and ultimately to the slow death of the ancient ‘cure’ of blood-letting.

The exhibit dissected Harvey’s work, its reception by contemporaries and the legacy of a man regarded by many as important to the development of medicine as Newton was to physics and Darwin to biology. 

From the Royal College of Physician’s own astonishing collections came antique copies of works by the long-established medical authorities of Harvey’s time. A 16th century volume of the ancient Greek physician Galen, advancing his theories of blood, sat side by side with a version of the pioneering medieval anatomist Mondino de Luzzi’s guidebook to dissection from the 15th century.

A selection of Harvey’s rare remaining personal effects were also on display, including his original Diploma of Medicine, awarded by the University of Padua in 1602, the demonstration rod he used during his lectures and letters written in his own hand. 

Terracotta statuette of William Harvey
Terracotta statuette of William Harvey (1578-1657) by Charles Bell Birch, 1886
Vesaulius pointer
Pointer indicating heart from Vesaulius
Bronze medal, the William Harvey Tercentenary Congress, 1957. Presented to Sir Charles Dodds
Bronze medal, the William Harvey Tercentenary Congress, 1957

In a case shared with a striking cast of the human heart, on loan from London’s Hunterian Museum, sat the exhibition’s most vital objects. Harvey’s seminal publication, de Mortu Cordis, in a first edition from 1628 and the first English language version published in 1653. In these two works, rarely seen in their original form, William Harvey quite simply transformed the way in which we understand the human body and its processes. 

As a selection of 17th century texts on display revealed, reactions at the time were mixed. Books and prints from the birth of the age of enlightenment tell the story of initial hostility giving way to an acceptance and appreciation of Harvey’s ground-breaking experimental science. Less well known is the great legacy Harvey left to the Royal College of Physicians. A deed of gift and college annals tell of lands, a library, museum and endowments bestowed to the organisation. Though much of this bequest was lost in the Great Fire of London, Harvey’s intellectual legacy lives on. 

Visitors could also see a selection of important Harveian Orations, given annually across the centuries at the Royal College of Physicians in his honour. From 1755, Robert Taylor explained the benefits of smallpox inoculation, decades before Jenner would develop a vaccine. In 1985 Dame Sheila Sherlock, the founder of the modern specialism of hepatology, became the first woman to deliver the lecture. This exhibition placed William Harvey where he truly belongs: at the heart of the history of medicine, science and our modern understanding of the human body and life itself.