studies in the history of science and culture
   IN BRIEF > BIOGRAPHIES > William Harvey (1578–1657)
   SEARCH this site
© December 2004
revised 7 March 2007

The following biography of William Harvey was written by one of his contemporaries, John Aubrey (1626–1697). I take my text here from the two-volume edition of Aubrey’s Brief Lives by Andrew Clark (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), i:295–305. Aubrey’s notes for his life of Harvey are scattered over several manuscripts, and because of this, yield a somewhat repetitive and digressive narrative.

William Harvey, widely considered the founder of modern physiology, is usually credited with “discovering” the circulation of the blood. In fact, Harvey’s new science of circulation refined, rather than overturned, Galen’s theory of blood flow. While Galen and his many followers in the early-modern medical community held that the blood oscillated back and forth in the body’s vessels, Harvey’s extensive experiments on the heart, arteries and veins revealed that blood travelled in one direction only through the body.

Harvey began lecturing about his experimental findings in 1616, eventually publishing on the subject in 1628. His small, cheaply-printed 72-page book, Exercitatio De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis (On the Motions of the Heart and Blood), was immediately attacked for its radical approach, and Aubrey tells us that Harvey paid a price professionally for his experimental science — “after his booke of the Circulation of the Blood came-out ... he fell mightily in his practize” — even though Harvey would later have the satisfaction of seeing “his owne doctrine established in his life time.”

Elsewhere in his mss., Aubrey records that the mathematician and philosopher, Walter Warner (15??–1640), claimed precedence for Harvey’s discovery:

Mr. Warner did tell Dr. Pell, that when Dr. Harvey came out with his Circulation of the Blood, he did wonder whence Dr. Harvey had it: but comeing one day to the earle of Leicester, he found Dr. Harvey in the hall, talking very familiarly with Mr. Prothero (Wallice ap Roderic), to whom Mr. Warner had discoursed concerning this exercitation of his De Circulatione Sanguinis, and made no question but Dr. Harvey had his hint from Prothero. Memorandum:—Dr. Pell sayes that Mr. Warner rationated demonstratively by beates of the pulses that there must be a circulation of the blood.

(Aubrey’s life of Warner, ed. Clark, ii:291)

Such priority disputes are perhaps best understood by rethinking them in terms of inventio — that is, in the rhetorical sense of “finding again or reassembling from past performances,” rather than the more romantic notion of invention as “something you create from scratch.” But even if we set aside the vexing matter of “discovery,” modern commentators still do not consider Warner’s inspirational hint as on a par with Harvey’s proven theory of circulation. Oliver Lawson Dick summarizes:

While William Harvey may have read Warner’s manuscript treatise about the circulation of the blood, it is obvious that Warner’s views were based on the current knowledge of the period, correct in certain details, but ignorant of the implications of the whole. Professor Rolleston said in the Harveian Oration of 1873: What was left for Harvey to discover was nothing less than the circulation itself. His predecessors had but impinged, and that by guesswork, upon different segments of the circle, and then gone off at a tangent into outer darkness, whilst he worked and proved and demonstrated round its entire periphery.

(editor’s introduction to Aubrey’s life
of Warner, ed. Dick, p. 315)

Aubrey’s intimate narrative about a man he considered a friend and mentor as well as a legend within European scientific circles (and many of England’s most prominent medical researchers in the latter half of the 17th century, such as Thomas Willis and Walter Charleton, were trained by Harvey) is full of intriguing insights, including Harvey’s thoughts on disorderly women.

Harvey, contemptuous of women in general, was of that school of science which did not believe in “devillish Witchcraft” (usually because of the extraordinary powers it gave to poor, elderly women), and in 1634, he helped four women obtain pardons for this, along with dissecting a witch’s “familiar” in order to prove that it was nothing more than a toad. It is one of history’s small ironies that we find in Harvey himself, as described by Aubrey, a fine example of medicine’s shifting gender constructions. Aubrey tells us that the undeniably masculine Harvey (like many another early-modern man) suffered from hot flashes: “He was hott-headed, and his thoughts working would many times keepe him from sleepinge; he told me that then his way was to rise out of his bed and walke about his chamber in his shirt till he was pretty coole....” Hot flashes have since been regendered, of course, becoming the quintessential marker of women’s menopause in the 21st century.

William Harvey (1578–1657)

“William Harvey, M.D., natus at Folkestone in Kent: borne at the house which is now the post-house, a faire stone-built house, which he gave to Caius College in Cambridge, with some lands there: vide his will. His brother Eliab would have given any money or exchange for it, because ’twas his father’s, and they all borne there; but the Doctor (truly) thought his memory would better be preserved this way, for his brother has left noble seates, and about 3000 li, per annum, at least.

“Hemsted in Essex towards Audeley End: ibi sepultus Dr. Harvey.

“Quaere Mr. [William] Marshall, the stone-cutter, for the inscription in the church there.

“Quaere Mr. Marshall in Fetterlane for the copie of the inscription on his monument in Essex.

“Dr. W. Harvey: [ask his] epitaph [from] Mr. Marshall.——Quaere Anthony Wood if there is a MS. in bibl. Bodleiana that speakes of the circulation of the bloud: Dr. [Luke] Ridgeley and Dr. Trowtbec can enforme me from Meredith Lloyd. ——— Memorandum, Mr. Parker tells me that Mr. [John] Oliver, the City surveyor, had his father Marshall’s inscriptions and papers; ergo vide there for the Doctor’s inscription and also for the inscription of Inigo Jones.

“Dr. William Harvey—ex libro meo B.

“Over Dr. Harvey’s picture in the great parlour under the library at the Physitians’ College at Amen-corner (burnt) :—

Gul. Harveus, an. aetat. 10, in Schola Cantuar. primis doctrinae rudimentis imbutus; 14, Col. Gonvil. et Caii alumnus; 19, peragravit Galliam et Italiam; 23, Patavii praeceptores habuit Eust. Rudium, Tho. Minad, H. Fab. ab Aquapend., Consul Anglor. 16 fit; 24, Doctor Med. et Chirurg. Reversus Lond. praxin exercuit, et uxorem duxit; 25, Coll. Med. Socius; 37, Anatom. et Chirurg. Professor; 54, Medicus Regius factus. Scripsit de Motu Sanguinis, et de Gen. Animal. Obiit 30 Jun. MDCLVII. Aetat. 80.

“—(But I well remember that Dr. Alsop, at his funerall, sayd that he was 80, wanting one [year]; and that he was the eldest of 9 brethren.)

“He lies buried in a vault at Hempsted in Essex, which his brother Eliab Harvey built; he is lapt in lead, and on his brest in great letters


“I was at his funerall, and helpt to carry him into the vault.

“In the library at the Physitians’ Colledge was the following inscription above his statue (which was in his doctorall robes):—

GUL. HARVEUS, natus A.D. 1578, Apr. 2. Folkston, in Com. Cantii, primogenitus Thomae Harvei et Joannae Halk: fratres germani, Tho. Jo. Dan. Eliab. Mich. Mat.: sorores, Sarah, Amey.

“Under his white marble statue, on the pedestall, thus,

Monumentis suis immortali,
Hoc insuper
Coll. Med. Lond.
(ut et ANIMAL, ORTUM) dedit
meruit esse
STATOR Perpetuus.

“Dr. Harvey added (or was very bountifull in contributing to) a noble building of Roman architecture (of rustique worke, with Corinthian pillasters) at the Physitians’ College aforesaid, viz. a great parlour for the Fellowes to meet in, belowe; and a library, above. On the outside on the freeze, in letters 3 inches long, is this inscription:—


“All these remembrances and building was destroyed by the generall fire.

“He was alwayes very contemplative, and the first that I heare of that was curious in anatomie in England. He had made dissections of frogges, toades, and a number of other animals, and had curious observations on them, which papers, together with his goods, in his lodgings at Whitehall, were plundered at the beginning of the Rebellion, he being for the king, and with him at Oxon; but he often sayd, that of all the losses he sustained, no greife was so crucifying to him as the losse of these papers, which for love or money he could never retrive or obtaine. When Charles I by reason of the tumults left London, he attended him, and was at the fight of Edge-hill with him; and during the fight, the Prince and duke of Yorke were committed to his care: he told me that he withdrew with them under a hedge, and tooke out of his pockett a booke and read; but he had not read very long before a bullet of a great gun grazed on the ground neare him, which made him remove his station. He told me that Sir Adrian Scrope was dangerously wounded there, and left for dead amongst the dead men, stript; which happened to be the saving of his life. It was cold, cleer weather, and a frost that night; which staunched his bleeding, and about midnight, or some houres after his hurt, he awaked, and was faine to drawe a dead body upon him for warmeth-sake.

“After Oxford was surrendred, which was 24 July 1646, he came to London, and lived with his brother Eliab a rich merchant in London, on . . . hill, opposite to St. Lawrence (Poultry) church, where was then a high leaden steeple (there were but two, viz. this and St. Dunstan’s in the East), and at his brother’s country house at Roe-hampton.

“His brother Eliab bought, about 1654, Cockaine-house, now (1680) the Excise-Office, a noble house, where the Doctor was wont to contemplate on the leads of the house, and had his severall stations, in regard of the sun, or wind.

“He did delight to be in the darke, and told me he could then best contemplate. He had a house heretofore at Combe, in Surrey, a good aire and prospect, where he had caves made in the earth, in which in summer time he delighted to meditate.—He was pretty well versed in the Mathematiques, and had made himselfe master of Mr. Oughtred’s Clavis Math. in his old age; and I have seen him perusing it, and working problems, not long before he dyed, and that booke was alwayes in his meditating apartment.

“His chamber was that roome that is now the office of Elias Ashmole, esq.; where he dyed, being taken with the dead palsye, which tooke away his speech. As soone as he sawe he was attaqued, he presently sent for his brother, and nephews, and gave one a watch, another another thing, etc., as remembrances of him. He dyed worth 20,000 li. which he left to his brother Eliab. In his will he left his old friend Mr. Thomas Hobbes 10 li. as a token of his love.

His sayings.—He was wont to say that man was but a great mischievous baboon.

“He would say, that we Europaeans knew not how to order or governe our woemen, and that the Turkes were the only people used them wisely.

“He was far from bigotry.

“He had been physitian to the Lord Chancellor Bacon, whom he esteemed much for his witt and style, but would not allow him to be a great philosopher. ‘He writes philosophy like a Lord Chancelor,’ said he to me, speaking in derision; ‘I have cured him.’

“About 1649 he travelled again into Italy, Dr. George (now Sir George) Ent, then accompanying him.

“At Oxford, he grew acquainted with Dr. Charles Scarborough, then a young physitian (since by king Charles II knighted), in whose conversation he much delighted; and wheras before, he marched up and downe with the army, he tooke him to him and made him ly in his chamber, and said to him, ‘Prithee leave off thy gunning, and stay here; I will bring thee into practice.’

“I remember he kept a pretty young wench to wayte on him, which I guesse he made use of for warmeth-sake as king David did, and tooke care of her in his will, as also of his man servant.

“For 20 yeares before he dyed he tooke no manner of care about his worldly concernes, but his brother Eliab, who was a very wise and prudent menager, ordered all not only faithfully, but better then he could have donne himselfe.

“He was, as all the rest of the brothers, very cholerique; and in his young days wore a dagger (as the fashion then was, nay I remember my old schoolemaster, old Mr. Latimer, at 70, wore a dudgeon, with a knife, and bodkin, as also my old grandfather Lyte, and alderman Whitson of Bristowe, which I suppose was the common fashion in their young dayes), but this Dr. would be to[o] apt to draw-out his dagger upon every slight occasion.

“He was not tall; but of the lowest stature, round faced, olivaster complexion; little eie, round, very black, full of spirit; his haire was black as a raven, but quite white 20 yeares before he dyed.

“I first sawe him at Oxford, 1642, after Edgehill fight, but was then too young to be acquainted with so great a Doctor. I remember he came severall times to Trin[ity] Coll[ege] to George Bathurst, B.D., who had a hen to hatch egges in his chamber, which they dayly opened to discerne the progres and way of generation. I had not the honour to be acquainted [with] him till 1651, being my she cosen Montague’s physitian and friend. I was at that time bound for Italy (but to my great griefe disswaded by my mother’s importunity). He was very communicative, and willing to instruct any that were modest and respectfull to him. And in order to my journey, gave me, i.e. dictated to me, what to see, what company to keepe, what bookes to read, how to manage my studies: in short, he bid me goe to the fountain head, and read Aristotle, Cicero, Avicenna, and did call the neoteriques shitt-breeches. He wrote a very bad hand, which (with use) I could pretty well read.

“I have heard him say, that after his booke of the Circulation of the Blood came-out, that he fell mightily in his practize, and that ’twas beleeved by the vulgar that he was crack-brained; and all the physitians were against his opinion, and envyed him; many wrote against him, as Dr. Primige, Paraciaanus, etc. (vide Sir George Ent’s booke). With much adoe at last, in about 20 or 30 yeares time, it was recieved in all the Universities in the world; and, as Mr. Hobbes sayes in his book ‘De Corpore,’ he is the only man, perhaps, that ever lived to see his owne doctrine established in his life time.

“He understood Greek and Latin pretty well, but was no critique, and he wrote very bad Latin. The Circuitus Sanguinis was, as I take it, donne into Latin by Sir George Ent (quaere), as also his booke de Generatione Animalium, but a little book in 12mo against Riolani (I thinke), wherein he makes-out his doctrine clearer, was writt by himselfe, and that, as I take it, at Oxford.

“His majestie king Charles I gave him the Wardenship of Merton Colledge in Oxford, as a reward for his service, but the times suffered him not to recieve or injoy any benefitt by it.

“He was physitian, and a great favorite of the Lord High Marshall of England, Thomas Howard, earle of Arundel and Surrey, with whom he travelled as his physitian in his ambassade to the Emperor . . . at Vienna, Anno Domini 163-. Mr. W[enceslaus]. Hollar (who was then one of his excellencie’s gentlemen) told me that, in his voyage, he would still be making of excursions into the woods, makeing observations of strange trees, and plants, earths, etc., naturalls, and sometimes like to be lost, so that my Lord Ambassador would be really angry with him, for there was not only danger of thieves, but also of wild beasts.

“He was much and often troubled with the gowte, and his way of cure was thus; he would then sitt with his legges bare, if it were frost, on the leads of Cockaine house, putt them into a payle of water, till he was almost dead with cold, and betake himselfe to his stove, and so ’twas gonne.

“He was hott-headed, and his thoughts working would many times keepe him from sleepinge; he told me that then his way was to rise out of his bed and walke about his chamber in his shirt till he was pretty coole, i.e. till he began to have a horror, and then returne to bed, and sleepe very comfortably.

“I remember he was wont to drinke coffee; which he and his brother Eliab did, before Coffee-houses were in fashion in London.

“All his profession would allowe him to be an excellent anatomist, but I never heard of any that admired his therapeutique way. I knew severall practisers in London that would not have given 3d. for one of his bills; and that a man could hardly tell by one of his bills what he did aime at.

“He did not care for chymistrey, and was wont to speake against them with an undervalue.

“It is now fitt, and but just, that I should endeavour to undecieve the world in a scandall that I find strongly runnes of him, which I have mett amongst some learned young men: viz. that he made himselfe a way to putt himselfe out of his paine, by opium; not but that, had he laboured under great paines, he had been readie enough to have donne it; I doe not deny that it was not according to his principles upon certain occasions to . . . . : but the manner of his dyeing was really, and bonâ fide, thus, viz. the morning of his death about 10 a clock, he went to speake, and found he had the dead palsey in his tongue; then he sawe what was to become of him, he knew there was then no hopes of his reeovery, so presently sends for his young nephewes to come-up to him, to whom he gives one his watch (’twas a minute watch with which he made his experiments); to another, another remembrance, etc.; made signe to . . . Sambroke, his apothecary (in Black-Fryars), to lett him blood in the tongue, which did little or no good; and so he ended his dayes. His practise was not very great towards his later end; he declined it, unlesse to a speciall friend,—e.g. my lady Howland, who had a cancer in her breast, which he did cutt-off and seared, but at last she dyed of it.

“He rode on horseback with a foot-cloath to visitt his patients, his man following on foote, as the fashion then was, which was very decent, now quite discontinued. The judges rode also with their foote-cloathes to Westminster-hall, which ended at the death of Sir Robert Hyde; Lord Chief Justice. Anthony earl of Shafton, would have revived, but severall of the judges being old and ill horsemen would not agree to it.

“Lettres on naturalls: [quaere] Mr. Samb[roke].

“The scandall aforesaid is from Sir Charles Scarborough’s saying that he had, towards his latter end, a preparation of opium and I know not what, which he kept in his study to take, if occasion should serve, to putt him out of his paine, and which Sir Charles promised to give him; this I beleeve to be true; but doe not at all beleeve that he really did give it him. The palsey did give hitn an easie passe-port.

“I remember I have heard him say he wrote a booke De insectis, which he had been many yeares about, and had made curious researches and anatomicall observations on them. This booke was lost when his lodgings at White-hall were plundered in tbe time of the rebellion. He could never for love nor money retrive them or heare what became of them and sayd ’twas the greatest crucifying to him that ever he had in all his life.

“Dr. Harvy told me, and anyone if he examines himself will find it to be true, that a man could not fancy—truthfully—that he is imperfect in any part that he has, verbi gratiâ, teeth, eie, tongue, spina dorsi, etc. Natura tends to perfection, and in matters of generation we ought to consult more with our sense and instinct, then our reason, and prudence, fashion of the country, and interest. We see what contemptible products are of tbe prudent politiques, weake, fooles, and ricketty children, scandalls to nature and their country. The heralds are fooles—tota errant via. A blessing goes with a marriage for love upon a strong impulse.

[The three paragraphs with which Aubrey concludes the notes for his life of Harvey are from Aubrey’s projected comedy, The Country Revel, and most likely a reminiscence of Harvey’s familiar conversation with Aubrey. Sowgelder, a character in Aubrey’s comedy, is here attempting to dissuade Sir John Fitz-ale from marrying a widow.]

Sowgelder. To see, Sir John, how much you are mistaken; he that marries a widdowe makes himself cuckold. Exempli gratia, to speake experimentally and in my trade, if a good bitch is first warded with a curre, let her ever after be warded with a dog of a good straine and yet she will bring curres as at first, her wombe being first infected with a curre. So, the children will be like the first husband (like raysing up children to your brother). So, the adulterer, though a crime in law, the children are like the husband.

Sir John. Thou dost talke, me thinks, more understandingly of these matters then any one I have mett with.

Sowgelder. Ah! my old friend Dr. Harvey—I knew him right well—he made me sitt by him 2 or 3 hours together discoursing. Why! had he been stiffe, starcht, and retired, as other formall doctors are, he had known no more then they. From the meanest person, in some way, or other, the learnedst man may learn something. Pride has been one of the greatest stoppers of the advancement of learning.”
John Aubrey's monogram



for discussion of William Marshall’s most famous work of memorializing — the engraved frontispiece for Eikon Basilike (London, 1649) — in an age which took very seriously such public monuments as Aubrey here lists for Harvey, see the GALLERY exhibit on the Athenian Society emblem

* * *
a portrait of Harvey’s patron, the earl of Arundel, in the GALLERY exhibit on the Frost Fair print & additional discussion of Arundel’s legacy of patronage in Aubrey’s life of the celebrated Czech artist and engraver, Wenceslaus Hollar

* * *
external link to an e-book version of Robert Willis’ English translation of Harvey’s Exercitatio De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis from the historical books page at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library Web site

< Engraved portrait of William Harvey

back to Aubrey’s text

< Portrait of an elderly William Harvey, after an unsigned etching variously attributed to Wenceslaus Hollar and to Richard Gaywood

back to Aubrey’s text

top of page

up a level: IN BRIEF page

This Web page was last modified on:  09/02/2014 12:58 PM.