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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Science doesn’t make a splash in the news too often. But a year or so ago, when the CERN labs announced that they might have observed the “God particle,” everyone got very excited. A year of peer-review later, it appears they were right: After a 50-year search, the Higgs boson has been found. 

William Harvey explains the circulation of the blood to Charles I.

William Harvey explains the circulation of the blood to Charles I.

nypl/science source/getty images

“God particle” is a silly, press-hype sort of name; but finding the Higgs boson is, genuinely, a big deal. It confirms the existence of the Higgs field, the hitherto-theoretical field that imbues objects with mass. Understanding mass will help us understand gravity and time, and all the other sundry, interconnected pieces of physics. It’s a big step towards understanding why the world works the way it does. 

Finding the Higgs boson means that the knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake reservoir is filling up. And the reservoir’s high-water mark is owed mostly to the accumulated work of a few dozen big minds belonging to men everyone’s heard of: Newton and Einstein, Mendel and Darwin, Watson and Crick, and so forth. But none of their discoveries would have happened if controlled-experiment, cause-and-effect science hadn’t taken over from the Aristotelian method of anecdotal deduction. That switch happened 300 years ago, when a man named William Harvey discovered that blood circulates—and accidentally invented hard science. 

Harvey was born in 1578 to Thomas Harvey, a yeoman landowner in Kent, England. The elder Harvey’s ambition in life was to have successful sons, so he packed his firstborn William off to Cambridge to become a physician. College life around the turn of the 17th century was no picnic: Harvey slept in an unheated attic with three other students and was roused by a bell at 4 a.m. so that he could be at church by 5, at class by 6, and in class till 10 at night. 

Despite the conditions, Harvey thrived as a student and won the Matthew Parker Scholarship, the first medical scholarship ever awarded in England. It required its beneficiary be “able, learned, and worthy” and not be “deformed, dumb, lame, maimed, mutilated, sick, invalid, or Welsh.” Harvey advanced rapidly, excelling in his studies and dominating the thesis-defense shows called “disputations.” At disputations, teams of students would debate each other in “smooth, vivid, masculine” Latin. Harvey was the master arguer of his college and sometimes ended his matches by shouting “Tuo gladio jugulabo!” (“Now I will slit your throat with your own [rhetorical] sword!”) The crowds that turned out to watch these disputations would cheer him like a king returning from victory. After a few terms embarrassing his Cambridge peers, he set off for Europe’s finest school of medicine, the University of Padua.

Padua was a big change from the stringency of Cambridge. In the early 1600s, Englishmen regarded Italy as the world capital of atheism and debauchery; Padua worked hard to prove them right. Hordes of students waded through the manure-filled streets to duel each other, Tybalt-style. Drunken doctoral candidates would rampage through shops and monasteries, smashing things; monks and shopkeepers would riot and try to set the university and its students on fire. Even the anatomy lectures that had drawn Harvey from Cambridge were in on the chaos, featuring dissections of freshly killed Paduans pilfered from open-casket funerals.

Despite the anarchy, the university assembled a faculty featuring some of the generation’s great minds (Galileo was head of the mathematics department), and the experience set Harvey down a path that would change the world of science. And the world, generally.

In Harvey’s time, all medicine was based on the work of the Greek philosopher Galen, who had been dead for 1,400 years. Galen believed that health depended on the balance of the four humors—yellow and black bile, blood, and phlegm—and that the heart’s role was to keep the humors regulated. Blood, he thought, came from the liver. Doctors disputing Galen’s work were rare: Contradicting Galen was a good way to get blacklisted, and inductees of the College of Physicians in London swore an oath never to speak disrespectfully of him. But at wild and crazy Padua, one of Harvey’s teachers cut open a heart and observed that Galen had made a mistake in describing one of the chamber walls as porous. A small mistake, it appeared, and Galen’s reputation at large remained untarnished. In Harvey’s eyes, however, the veneer of infallibility had been cracked.

William Harvey, M.D., left Padua in 1602, returned to England, joined the College of Physicians, took the respect-for-Galen oath—and began to conduct private experiments in a home laboratory. His curiosity had been roused: It was time, he decided, to reexamine the heart’s functions, through a series of impartial, Galen-free experiments. 

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.