Circulation: William Harvey's Revolutionary Idea by Thomas Wright

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Circulation: William Harvey's Revolutionary Idea by Thomas Wright

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Reviewed by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Summary: Excellent biography of English physician William Harvey, and exploration of the development of his theory of circulation.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099552697

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Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Biography Award 2013

'Circulation' by Thomas Wright is a biography of English physician William Harvey’s life, and the story of the 'birth of a theory'. It takes the reader through time before, during and after the creation and completion of De Motu Cordis, in which Harvey famously outlines the most comprehensive antecedent of the mechanism of blood circulation as we know it today. The combination of the writer's aptitude for storytelling and the intriguing life of the individual about whom he writes makes for a fascinating read, allowing one to course through chronologically arranged chapters on Harvey’s life and works, mixed with briefer essays on subject matters ranging from the history of vivisection to the philosophical underpinnings of Harvey’s work.

The author builds up one’s perception of Harvey, by looking at all from his yeoman heritage, his lifelong keenness for observation of natural phenomena, to his attributes of 'tenacity, diligence, and ruthlessness', supposedly lent to him through his 'choleric' personality. The aspirational streak in his character pervades his trajectory through life – having chosen medicine as the method by which he might advance himself and move up the social ladder, one sees him making academic and socioeconomic progress at a breakneck pace, from Cambridge University, through student life in the nursery of the arts that was Padua, to continued ascent through the ranks of esteemed men in his country, and beyond.

Several things make me particularly fond of this biography; one is the way in which Wright trenchantly shows Harvey to have been a product of his times, despite being famed for having thought ahead of these. The intellectual and cultural currents that would have been very likely influences of Harvey’s work are shown to be varied. The Kentish yeoman-son’s tuition in Aristotelian four-cause classification guided his way of thinking. The emphasis placed upon practical experience by the University of Padua may have inspired the vivisections he performed in his private research chamber, hoping to cast light on the truth about blood flow. Poetry, prayers and common parlance would all have imbued him with a reverence for the heart, the muscle he referred to as the 'tutelary deity of the body'. The synchronous widespread notion of everything in the universe being linked in a macrocosm-microcosm format was even used by supporters of Harvey’s theory, illustrating its inherent common sense by paralleling circulation to phenomena such as the sun moving wind in a perfect, circular fashion.

And yet, though Harvey’s theory of circulation may have seemed to be contextually logical, the sense of isolation he must have felt, as a result of seeing something almost no-one else could see, shines through in the book. I could certainly feel the heat when reading the accounts of sharp tongues castigating him, and fervently defending the reigning, though obsolete, explanation of blood flow put forward by Galen in ancient Rome. The ocular demonstrations which he set up in institutions across the continent, in which his goal was to have his crowd independently reach his own conclusions, transformed into academic hearings in which he would pendulate between excusing Galen’s misconceptions, and earnestly expressing his reasons for doubting these. But fellow prominent natural philosophers would see nothing beyond what had been held as true for aeons before Harvey, upholding that the heart’s septum was indeed porous, that there was a complete separation between the systemic and the pulmonary circulation, and that diastole (not systole) was the active phase of the heart.

Towards the end, the book becomes wistful in tone, partly a reflection of Harvey’s mood in the aftermath of the circulation of his theory. It is suggested that the acceptance of his writings of the motion of the heart and blood may have engendered a greater change in general thought than he had wished for, or anticipated. While Harvey was troubled by not knowing the Aristotelian final cause, 'the ultimate purpose' of circulation, a thinker such as Descartes, with his man-is-machine proposition, revelled in the hydraulic system which had been identified in the human body, and was fully satisfied with this.

Making vain attempts to return to a time before the burgeoning intellectual revolution which was happening before his eyes, Harvey was still proposing that blood housed the soul, soon being overridden by Descartes’ supposition, leading to the brain receiving precedence over the heart. At the same time, there was a widening of chasms between areas of knowledge which were almost inseparable from each other in Harvey’s time. There was a call for what we know today as scientific language and style, and a discouragement of the more fanciful, though investigative, writings preceding Harvey’s times. In spite of his disapproval of what lay ahead of him, Harvey had undoubtedly achieved his life goals of worldly advancement and intellectual immortality.

If looking for the biography of yet another significant Englishman in the natural sciences, I recommend Darwin: A Life in Science by John Gribbin and Michael White.

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