At this time a most vitally important controversy was in progress as to whether or not the veins of the bodies were supplied with valves, many anatomists being unable to find them. etienne had first described these structures, and Vesalius had confirmed his observations. It would seem as if there could be no difficulty in settling the question as to the fact of such valves being present in the vessels, for the demonstration is so simple that it is now made daily by medical students in all physiological laboratories and dissecting-rooms. But many of the great anatomists of the sixteenth century were unable to make this demonstration, even when it had been brought to their attention by such an authority as Vesalius. Fallopius, writing to Vesalius on the subject in 1562, declared that he was unable to find such valves. Others, however, such as Eustachius and Fabricius (1537-1619), were more successful, and found and described these structures. But the purpose served by these valves was entirely misinterpreted. That they act in preventing the backward flow of the blood in the veins on its way to the heart, just as the valves of the heart itself prevent regurgitation, has been known since the time of Harvey; but the best interpretation that could be given at that time, even by such a man as Fabricius, was that they acted in retarding the flow of the blood as it comes from the heart, and thus prevent its too rapid distribution throughout the body. The fact that the blood might have been going towards the heart, instead of coming from it, seems never to have been considered seriously until demonstrated so conclusively by Harvey.

Of this important and remarkable controversy over the valves in veins, Withington has this to say: "This is truly a marvellous story. A great Galenic anatomist is first to give a full and correct description of the valves and their function, but fails to see that any modification of the old view as to the motion of the blood is required. Two able dissectors carefully test their action by experiment, and come to a result. the exact reverse of the truth. Urged by them, the two foremost anatomists of the age make a special search for valves and fail to find them. Finally, passing over lesser peculiarities, an aged and honorable professor, who has lived through all this, calmly asserts that no anatomist, ancient or modern, has ever mentioned valves in veins till he discovered them in 1574!"[2]

Among the anatomists who probably discovered these valves was Michael Servetus (1511-1553); but if this is somewhat in doubt, it is certain that he discovered and described the pulmonary circulation, and had a very clear idea of the process of respiration as carried on in the lungs. The description was contained in a famous document sent to Calvin in 1545—a document which the reformer carefully kept for seven years in order that he might make use of some of the heretical statements it contained to accomplish his desire of bringing its writer to the stake. The awful fate of Servetus, the interesting character of the man, and the fact that he came so near to anticipating the discoveries of Harvey make him one of the most interesting figures in medical history.

In this document which was sent to Calvin, Servetus rejected the doctrine of natural, vital, and animal spirits, as contained in the veins, arteries, and nerves respectively, and made the all-important statement that the fluids contained in veins and arteries are the same. He showed also that the blood is "purged from fume" and purified by respiration in the lungs, and declared that there is a new vessel in the lungs, "formed out of vein and artery." Even at the present day there is little to add to or change in this description of Servetus's.

By keeping this document, pregnant with advanced scientific views, from the world, and in the end only using it as a means of destroying its author, the great reformer showed the same jealousy in retarding scientific progress as had his arch-enemies of the Inquisition, at whose dictates Vesalius became a martyr to science, and in whose dungeons etienne perished.


The time was ripe for the culminating discovery of the circulation of the blood; but as yet no one had determined the all-important fact that there are two currents of blood in the body, one going to the heart, one coming from it. The valves in the veins would seem to show conclusively that the venous current did not come from the heart, and surgeons must have observed thousands of times the every-day phenomenon of congested veins at the distal extremity of a limb around which a ligature or constriction of any kind had been placed, and the simultaneous depletion of the vessels at the proximal points above the ligature. But it should be remembered that inductive science was in its infancy. This was the sixteenth, not the nineteenth century, and few men had learned to put implicit confidence in their observations and convictions when opposed to existing doctrines. The time was at hand, however, when such a man was to make his appearance, and, as in the case of so many revolutionary doctrines in science, this man was an Englishman. It remained for William Harvey (1578-1657) to solve the great mystery which had puzzled the medical world since the beginning of history; not only to solve it, but to prove his case so conclusively and so simply that for all time his little booklet must he handed down as one of the great masterpieces of lucid and almost faultless demonstration.