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HARVEY, William (1578-1657)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0113 MS-HARVW
Held at: Royal College of Physicians
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Full title: HARVEY, William (1578-1657)
Date(s): 1602-1640
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 8 volumes
Name of creator(s): Harvey | William | 1578-1657 | physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood


Administrative/Biographical history:

William Harvey was born on 1 April 1578 in Folkestone, Kent, the son of Thomas Harvey, a Kentish yeoman, and his second wife Joane. He was the second child and eldest son of a family of ten children. In 1588 he went to King's Grammar School, Canterbury, and then in 1593 to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He graduated BA in 1597 and decided to pursue a career in medicine. In 1598 he traveled through France and Germany to Padua, to study at the most renowned medical school of the time. He studied under Fabricus of Aquapendente, Professor of Anatomy, as well as Thomas Minadous, Professor of Medicine, and Julius Casserius, Professor of Surgery. He graduated on 25 April 1602, before returning to England and graduating MD from Cambridge in the same year.

Harvey moved to London and took a house in the parish of St Martin-extra-Ludgate. In 1604 he married Elizabeth Browne, daughter of Dr Lancelot Browne, former physician to Queen Elizabeth I. On 5 October 1604 he was admitted a candidate of the Royal College of Physicians, and was elected Fellow on 5 June 1607. In February 1608-9 he applied for reversion of the office of physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital, whereupon he produced a recommendation from the King and testimonials from Dr Atkins, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and several senior doctors of the College. He was elected to the reversion, a position equivalent to assistant physician, and worked under Dr Wilkinson. Upon the latter's death in the summer of 1609 Harvey was elected full physician.

From 1609 onwards Harvey's time was divided between his hospital duties, his private practice, his anatomical and physiological research, and his numerous duties at the Royal College of Physicians. He became Censor at the College in 1613, and in 1615 was elected Lumleian Lecturer, a role he fulfilled every other year for the next thirty years. He gave his first set of anatomical lectures at the College on 16-18 April 1616. Originally it was believed that Harvey publicly revealed his concept of the circulation of the blood during these earliest demonstrations, although he did not publish his beliefs until 1928. However it is now accepted that

`complete realization of this doctrine was only arrived at by stages during the first twelve years covered by the lectures' (Keynes, 1978, p.106).

In 1618 Harvey was made physician extraordinary to James I. Five years later he received a promise that he would be made physician in ordinary to the King on the next vacancy, although this did not take place until Charles I had been on the throne for some time. In 1620 Harvey was appointed by the Royal College of Physicians to watch the proceedings of the surgeons who were moving Parliament in their own interest, and was sent to Cambridge where the university declined to join the College. Harvey was Censor again for the College in 1625 and 1629, was named Elect in 1627, and was Treasurer in 1628 and 1629.

In 1628 Harvey published at Frankfurt his discovery of the circulation of the blood, in a book entitled Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sangiunis in Animalibus. Throughout the seventeen chapters `the whole subject is made clear from the beginning and incontestably demonstrated' (DNB, 1891, p.96). Harvey's success in his research has been attributed to the fact that

`his originality stemmed not from the amassing of observations per se but from his remarkable gift for perceiving and pursuing the theoretical implications of his observations' (DSB, 1972, p.152).

In his book he described the movement of the blood around the body, and covered the motions of the arteries and of the ventricles and auricles of the heart, and the use of these movements. He explained that blood is carried out of the heart by arteries and comes back to it via veins, performing a complete circulation. He finally demonstrated that the right ventricle is thinner than the left, as it only has to send the blood to the lungs, whilst the left ventricle has to pump it over the whole body. The book immediately attracted attention and discussion. Whilst a few opposed his theory, such as Caspar Hofmann of Nuremburg, his momentous discovery, `the greatest of the discoveries of physiology' (ibid, p97), was certainly accepted throughout the medical world before his death.

In 1630 he requested leave of absence from St Barts, and resigned from his position of Treasurer at the Royal College of Physicians, to travel with the Duke of Lenox on the King's command to France, Spain and Italy, between 1630 and 1632. It was probably on his return to England that he was sworn in as physician in ordinary to the King. In May 1633 he journeyed to Scotland with Charles I for Charles' coronation as King of Scotland, 18 June 1633. In October of that year St Barts appointed a full physician to allow Harvey more liberty to fulfill his many duties. Harvey then drew up sixteen regulations for the hospital, essentially stating that absolutely incurable cases should not be admitted, and that the surgeon, apothecary, and matron were to discharge all services decently and in person.

Once back in England Harvey was in full attendance on Charles I. He remained heavily involved with the Royal College of Physicians however, regularly attending the comitia, examining applicants for Candidate, and drawing up rules for the library. In July 1634 he made a speech to the apothecaries persuading them to conform to the College orders.

In April 1636 he again left England, this time for Germany and Italy, as part of an embassy sent to Emperor Ferdinand of Germany. Harvey was in attendance on his friend the ambassador Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. During this diplomatic mission he was able to visit a number of medical colleges, and lectured to students and professors on his theory of blood circulation. Whilst in Germany he visited his critic Hofmann, in Nuremburg, in an attempt to convince him of his theory on the circulation of the blood, but failed.

On returning to England, at the end of 1636, Harvey remained in London until the outbreak of Civil War. From 1639 he was the King's chief physician, and in 1642 he left London with the King. Shortly afterwards his apartment in Whitehall Palace had been ransacked and most of his papers destroyed by the Parliamentarian soldiers. Harvey was present at the Battle of Edgehill, and was in charge of the Prince of Wales and Duke of York during the fighting, although it is said that he `cared little for politics' (ibid, p.98). He subsequently went to Oxford with the King and was incorporated MD on 7 December 1642. In 1643 he resigned from St Barts. He continued his anatomical work, making dissections at Oxford. In 1645 he was made royal mandate warden of Merton College, Oxford.

In 1646, after the surrender of Oxford, Harvey left the university and his appointment as warden and returned to London to live with one of his brothers, all of who were wealthy merchants. His wife had died the previous year in London, unable to leave the capital to join her husband in Oxford. He was now 68 years old and withdrew from practice and from the royal cause. Three years later he published Exercitatio Anatomica de Circulatione Sanguinis, ad Joannem Riolanem filium Parisiensem (1649), a discussion of the arguments against his doctrines set out in Riolanus's book Encheiridium Anatomicum (1648). His last publication, Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, quibis accedunt quaedam de Partu, de Membranis ac Tumoribus Uteri et de Conceptione, based on his study of embryology, appeared in 1651.

From this period until his death it is said that `the chief object which occupied the mind of Harvey was the welfare and improvement of the College of Physicians' (Munk's Roll, 1878, p.133). In July 1651 Harvey built a library for the College. Although he wished to remain anonymous the source of this generous donation soon became known, and in December 1652 the College decided to erect a statue of Harvey. The library was completed in February 1653-4 and handed over to the College with the title deeds and his whole interest in the building. In 1654 he was elected president, but declined the honour on the grounds of his age. He did however serve on the Council, in 1655 and 1656. In 1656 he also resigned his Lumleian lectureship, but before leaving he donated to the College, in perpetuity, his estate at Burmarsh, Kent, and left an endowment to pay for a librarian and the delivery of an annual oration.

Harvey had suffered from gout for sometime but the attacks became more severe towards the end of his life. He died of a stroke on 3 June 1657 at the age of 79. His body was placed in the family vault at Hempstead, Essex, the fellows of the Royal College of Physicians forming part of the procession from London to Essex. His body remained there until 18 October, St Luke's Day, 1883 when it was moved to a sarcophagus, provided by the College, in the Harvey chapel erected in Hempstead Church. In his will Harvey left his books and papers to the College, a benefaction to Christ's Hospital, and many bequests to his relations. The College posthumously published a collected edition of his works in 1766, whilst a complete translation into English, by the Sydenham Society, appeared in 1847. In his honour the Harveian Oration is delivered every year on St Luke's Day.

Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sangiunis in Animalibus (1628; Translated with Introduction & Notes by G. Whitteridge, Oxford, 1976)
Exercitatio Anatomica de Circulatione Sanguinis, ad Joannem Riolanem filium Parisiensem (1649)
Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium, quibis accedunt quaedam de Partu, de Membranis ac Tumoribus Uteri et de Conceptione (1651)
Harvey's post mortem examination of Thomas Parr, the old man of 152, in De Ortu et Natura Sanguinis, Treatise of John Betts (London, 1669)
Eleven Letters of William Harvey to Lord Feilding, June 9 - November 15 1636 posthumously published (privately printed, London 1912)
De Motu Locali Animalium, posthumously published, edited, translated, and introduced by Gweneth Whitteridge (Cambridge, 1959)

Publications by others about Harvey:
Guilielmi Harveii Opera Omnia a Collegio Medicorum, Akenside (ed.), with prefixed biography by Dr Thomas Lawrence (London, 1776)
The Works of William Harvey: Translated from the Latin with a Life of the Author by R. Willis, Robert Willis (Sydenham Society, 1847)
William Harvey: A History of the Discovery of the Circulation of the Blood, Robert Willis (London, 1878)
A Brief Account of the Circumstances Leading to and Attending the Reintombment of the Remains of Dr William Harvey in the Church of Hempstead in Essex, October 1883, William Munk (privately printed, London 1883)
The Life of William Harvey and his Discovery of the Circulation of the Blood, Rowland Hills (London, 1893)
William Harvey (Masters of Medicine), Sir D'Arcy Power (London, 1897)
William Harvey 1578-1657, Raymond Benedict Hervey Wyatt (London, 1924)
A Bibliography of the Writings of William Harvey, MD, Discoverer of the Blood, 1628-1928, Sir G.L. Keynes (Cambridge, 1928)
William Harvey, Thomas Archibald Malloch (New York, 1929)
William Harvey: His Life and Times: his Discoveries: his Methods, Louis Chauvois (London, 1957)
William Harvey, Norman Wymer (Oxford, 1958)
William Harvey, Englishman, 1578-1657, Kenneth James Franklin (London, 1961)
William Harvey, the Man, the Physician and the Scientist, Kenneth David Keele (London, 1965)
William Harvey: Trailblazer of Scientific Medicine, Rebecca B. Marcus (London, 1965)
William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood, Gweneth Whitteridge (London, 1971)
William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood (Pioneers of Science and Discovery), Eric Neil (London, 1975)
New Light on William Harvey, Walter Pagel (Basel, 1976)
The Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the Birth of William Harvey - Scientific and Social Programme, 9-13th July 1978, Royal College of Physicians of London (London, 1978)
The Life of William Harvey, Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1978)
William Harvey and His Age: The Professional and Social Context of the Discovery of the Circulation, Jerome J. Bylebyl (Baltimore, c.1979)
The Diary of William Harvey: The Imaginary Journal of the Physician who Revolutionised Medicine, Jean Hamburger, translated by Barbara Wright (New Jersey, 1992)
William Harvey's Natural Philosophy, Roger Kenneth French (Cambridge, 1994)


Scope and content/abstract:

Harvey's papers, 1602-40, consist of offical and legal documents, include his diploma of DM from the University of Padua, 1602; Lease to Harvey of lands called Buckholte, in Kent, 1611; Letters patent of Charles I under the Great Seal, granting to Harvey a general pardon, 1625/26, and annuities of 50 per annum, 1631, 300 per annum, 1637, 100 per annum, 1639, and 200 and 100 per annum, 1640.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:
Latin and English

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

All requests should be referred to the Archivist

Finding aids:

Descriptions of material relating to Harvey can be found in 'A Descriptive Catalogue of the Legal and Other Documents in the Archives of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1924' (bound volume in the Library Office & on microfilm - F25)

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Harvey's diploma was presented to the College by Rev. Osmund Beauvoir, Headmaster of King's School, Canterbury; The provenance of the rest of the collection is unknown.

Allied Materials

Related material:

There is material relating to Harvey held elsewhere in the College archives, amongst the personal papers of other individuals, including 11 letters from Harvey to Denbigh, Lord Feilding, 1st Earl, 1636 (MS316), and two letters from Harvey to Baldwin Hamey, 17th century (MS310); Engravings of bust and portraits of Harvey in a medical scrapbook, 18th-19th century (MS735); Biographical details including his family tree and his writings, n.d., by Tom Hare (MS314), Jean Hamburger's 'Diary of William Harvey', translated into 20th century English by Barbara Wright, 1989 (MS832), notes on Harvey in William Macmichael's 'Lives of British Physicians, 1830' (MS439), and in Reginald St Alban Heathcote's family tree, showing his descent from Harvey's brother Daniel, 1937 (MS338); Reference is also made to Harvey and his work by Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne in his casebook, 1607-51 (MS444), by Sir Andrew Clark in correspondence amongst Sir William Henry Allchin's papers (MS-ALLCW/713/212), and by Sir George Ent in his 'Apologia pro Circuitione Sanguinis...' [1641?] (MS129)

There is a large amount of material amongst the College's own papers which relates specifically to Harvey (MS1024). This series includes correspondence, notes, reports, committee minutes, photographs, and legal documents (copies and originals), 1554-1984. Subjects covered include the Harveian Orations and Dinners, 1662-1984, their organization, speakers, and guests; Various celebratory and commemorative events, 1878-1978, such as the Tercentenary Celebrations of 1978; Hempstead Church, the moving of Harvey's body and the erecting of monuments, 1880-1935; Film about Harvey, 1928-72; Bequests to the College, in particular the Burmarsh Estate, 1656; Biographic details about Harvey and his family; and the various portraits and statues of Harvey, 1554-1978.

There is also material relating to Harvey to be found amongst other parts of the College's papers, including a copy of his unpublished manuscript on physiology 'De Motu Locali Animalium', 1627 (MS729) (original at British Library); Details of Harvey's bequests to the College in an abstract of donations to the College, 17th-18th century (MS2074a), a list of title deeds of estate at Newes granted to the College by Harvey, 1656-1780, and a photograph of part of the Burmarsh estate, 1978, in a College file on Burmarsh (MS2006/1, 18A); Accounts of the profits from, and expenses associated with, the sale of his collected works, 'Operia Omnia', 1765-71 (MS2042a); College Christmas cards with illustrations of Harvey, 1987-88 (MS856/1-2); Correspondence regarding Harvey's stemma, 1966 (MS2000/103-6), and his portrait by Frederic John Farre, 1869, and by William Dobson, 1905, 1928 (MS2004/54, 59, 81). There are a number of letters that make reference to Harvey amongst the College's Autographed Letters Collection (ALS).

Harvey's prescriptions and papers are held at the British Library, Manuscripts Collections, including his unpublished manuscripts, 'Anatomica Universa' (notes for his Lumleian Lectures), and 'De Motu Locali Animalium'; Prescriptions for John Aubrey are held at Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Special Collections and Western Manuscripts. See the National Register of Archives for details.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Dictionary of National Biography, vol. XXV, Leslie Stephen & Sidney Lee (eds.) (London, 1891) [DNB, 1891, pp.94-99]; The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 1518-1700, William Munk (London, 1878) [Munk's Roll, 1878, pp.124-46]; Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. VI (New York, 1972) [DSB, 1972, pp.150-62]; William Harvey: Trailblazer of Scientific Medicine, Rebecca B. Marcus (London, 1965); The Life of William Harvey, Geoffrey Keynes (Oxford, 1978); Historical Manuscripts Commission On-Line National Register of Archives.
Compiled by Katharine Williams

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives, Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Compiled April 2003; Modified October 2003

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