The Magazine

Living in Vein

Remember the man who invented modern medicine.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By JOSHUA GELERNTER
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According to Galen, the heart, after receiving blood from the liver, heated and distributed it throughout the body, where it was absorbed by muscle. But when Harvey began vivisecting animals, he noticed that the heart wasn’t so much receiving blood as it was sucking it in with forceful expansions. And he noticed—in his eureka! moment—that the heart pumps out a whole lot of blood—much more, he was certain, than the body could possibly absorb. If the blood wasn’t being absorbed, it was being recycled; so blood wasn’t being distributed and used up, it was being circulated. Harvey was forced to conclude that the world of medicine—the entire philosophy of the humors—was based on a false premise.

Of course, since no one wanted to hear that every physician in Europe misunderstood the human body (and no one was willing to take Harvey’s word over Galen’s), Harvey had to make his conclusions undeniable. So, in effect, he went on tour, performing experiments for everyone to see. It took 10 years to perfect the demonstration, but he made his point, and changed medicine. He also made a bigger point that changed science: The way to prove something is to show it to be true. Reproducible, Harvey-style experimentation has been the standard ever since.

And for all his hard work, courage, and brilliance, which shaped the modern world and gave birth to the practice of medicine that has prolonged millions of lives, William Harvey is remembered today by just about no one. He is not revered, like Einstein and Darwin; he is never mentioned in high school curricula; and no one would credit him as the ancestor of the Higgs boson discovery. But William Harvey: A Life in Circulation is an important step towards setting this injustice straight.

Joshua Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.