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Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea – a review

Circulation Book CoverOn the ‘new book’ shelf at my local library, I spotted Thomas Wright’s Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea. When I picked it up and looked at the Preface I became immediately engrossed. The first paragraph tells me that William Harvey’s “theory demolished centuries of anatomical and physiological orthodoxy, and introduced a radical conception of the workings of the human body that had profound cultural consequences influencing economists, poets and political thinkers.”

Many times in my career as a high school science teacher, I helped students recreate Harvey’s experiment which demonstrates that the valves in the veins allow blood to flow in one direction. After reading Thomas Wright’s book, I have an infinitely better understanding of the life and times of William Harvey and what led to that being such a significant demonstration.

Thomas Wright helped me put the life and times of William Harvey into the perspective of the period when our current idea of how to do modern science was in its infancy. At the time of Harvey’s university education in Padua, the theories and ideas of Galen were considered supreme, and the development of new theories had to comply with the processes put in place by Aristotle. When William Harvey questioned the work of Galen, it was tantamount to heresy. Wright uses a series of thematic essays interspersed between the chronological chapters to enrich our experience and help us relate to the Zeitgeist of William Harvey’s time.

Circulation TimelineOne of the thematic essays is about the experimentation and empiricism advocated by Francis Bacon. Although they were contemporaries, William Harvey was not in the camp of the new wave of ‘scientists’ manifested by the scientific method. I never really thought about how science was done prior to the development of what we call the scientific method. Through Wright’s book, I learned that during Harvey’s time extreme rigor was required to prove a theory. It was not that a theory had to be falsified to be rejected; rather, it had to receive the approval of significant recognized people in authority to be accepted. William Harvey took great pride, for example, in showing his proof to the king; but he felt crushed when his theory was publicly rebuked by Caspar Hofmann, considered a significant authority in anatomy during the mid-1600s. William Harvey clung to the idea that theory had to comply with the Aristotelian interplay between data and ideas.

This was a time period when what was seen in the body was expected to be mirrored in what was seen in other aspects of life and the outer world. Wright illustrates this view with examples demonstrating that when William Harvey’s ideas regarding circulation began to be widely accepted, the application of the idea of circulation was also taking hold of our view of the universe and solar system, in the traffic on city streets, and in the flow of money through commerce and trade.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Thomas Wright’s book Circulation – William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea. If you teach biology, then I highly recommend this book for you. If you are interested in one of the major ideas that helped transform the way we think about the functioning human body, this book is for you.

Note: When I reviewed the book Age of Wonder, I was writing about the explosive developments in science and scientific ideas that began in the late 1700s. The Royal Society was founded in 1660, with Sir Joseph Banks becoming President in 1778. Thomas Wright’s book about William Harvey describes the scientific thinking at a time that was almost two centuries earlier.

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Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea – a review

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