Harvey, the son of a prosperous Kentish yeoman, was born at Folkestone. His education was begun at the grammar-school of Canterbury, and later he became a pensioner of Caius College, Cambridge. Soon after taking his degree of B.A., at the age of nineteen, he decided upon the profession of medicine, and went to Padua as a pupil of Fabricius and Casserius. Returning to England at the age of twenty-four, he soon after (1609) obtained the reversion of the post of physician to St. Bartholomew's Hospital, his application being supported by James I. himself. Even at this time he was a popular physician, counting among his patients such men as Francis Bacon. In 1618 he was appointed physician extraordinary to the king, and, a little later, physician in ordinary. He was in attendance upon Charles I. at the battle of Edgehill, in 1642, where, with the young Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, after seeking shelter under a hedge, he drew a book out of his pocket and, forgetful of the battle, became absorbed in study, until finally the cannon-balls from the enemy's artillery made him seek a more sheltered position.

On the fall of Charles I. he retired from practice, and lived in retirement with his brother. He was then well along in years, but still pursued his scientific researches with the same vigor as before, directing his attention chiefly to the study of embryology. On June 3, 1657, he was attacked by paralysis and died, in his eightieth year. He had lived to see his theory of the circulation accepted, several years before, by all the eminent anatomists of the civilized world.

A keenness in the observation of facts, characteristic of the mind of the man, had led Harvey to doubt the truth of existing doctrines as to the phenomena of the circulation. Galen had taught that "the arteries are filled, like bellows, because they are expanded," but Harvey thought that the action of spurting blood from a severed vessel disproved this. For the spurting was remittant, "now with greater, now with less impetus," and its greater force always corresponded to the expansion (diastole), not the contraction (systole) of the vessel. Furthermore, it was evident that contraction of the heart and the arteries was not simultaneous, as was commonly taught, because in that case there would be no marked propulsion of the blood in any direction; and there was no gainsaying the fact that the blood was forcibly propelled in a definite direction, and that direction away from the heart.

Harvey's investigations led him to doubt also the accepted theory that there was a porosity in the septum of tissue that divides the two ventricles of the heart. It seemed unreasonable to suppose that a thick fluid like the blood could find its way through pores so small that they could not be demonstrated by any means devised by man. In evidence that there could be no such openings he pointed out that, since the two ventricles contract at the same time, this process would impede rather than facilitate such an intra-ventricular passage of blood. But what seemed the most conclusive proof of all was the fact that in the foetus there existed a demonstrable opening between the two ventricles, and yet this is closed in the fully developed heart. Why should Nature, if she intended that blood should pass between the two cavities, choose to close this opening and substitute microscopic openings in place of it? It would surely seem more reasonable to have the small perforations in the thin, easily permeable membrane of the foetus, and the opening in the adult heart, rather than the reverse. From all this Harvey drew his correct conclusions, declaring earnestly, "By Hercules, there ARE no such porosities, and they cannot be demonstrated."

Having convinced himself that no intra-ventricular opening existed, he proceeded to study the action of the heart itself, untrammelled by too much faith in established theories, and, as yet, with no theory of his own. He soon discovered that the commonly accepted theory of the heart striking against the chest-wall during the period of relaxation was entirely wrong, and that its action was exactly the reverse of this, the heart striking the chest-wall during contraction. Having thus disproved the accepted theory concerning the heart's action, he took up the subject of the action of arteries, and soon was able to demonstrate by vivisection that the contraction of the arteries was not simultaneous with contractions of the heart. His experiments demonstrated that these vessels were simply elastic tubes whose pulsations were "nothing else than the impulse of the blood within them." The reason that the arterial pulsation was not simultaneous with the heart-beat he found to be because of the time required to carry the impulse along the tube,

By a series of further careful examinations and experiments, which are too extended to be given here, he was soon able further to demonstrate the action and course of the blood during the contractions of the heart. His explanations were practically the same as those given to-day—first the contraction of the auricle, sending blood into the ventricle; then ventricular contraction, making the pulse, and sending the blood into the arteries. He had thus demonstrated what had not been generally accepted before, that the heart was an organ for the propulsion of blood. To make such a statement to-day seems not unlike the sober announcement that the earth is round or that the sun does not revolve about it. Before Harvey's time, however, it was considered as an organ that was "in some mysterious way the source of vitality and warmth, as an animated crucible for the concoction of blood and the generation of vital spirits."[3]