The Galileo Project
site map

Harvey, William

1. Dates
Born: Folkestone, Kent, 1 April 1578
Died: London or Roehampton, Surrey, 3 June 1657
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 79
2. Father
Occupation: Peasant/Small Farmer, Merchant
Thomas Harvey was a yeoman farmer and small landowner who also engaged in commerce and ultimately rose into the gentry.
It is clear that he was prosperous. Among other things, Harvey attended Oxford as a Pensioner.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge; Padua, M.D.
The King's School, Canterbury, 1588-93.
Cambridge University, Gonville and Caius College, 1593-9. B.A., 1597.
University of Padua, 1599-1602; M.D., 1602.
Incorporated M.D. at Oxford, 1642, by royal mandate (not listed).
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Harvey conformed to the established church, but there is no evidence of serious religious commitment and more than one suggestion (though only on the level of gossip) of considerable free thought.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Physiology, Embryology
Subordinate: Anatomy, Medicine, Entomology
De motu cordis et sanguinis, 1628, the physiological classic of the 17th century.
Harvey planned a vast program of publication on respiration, the functions of the brain and spleen, animal locomotion, and comparative and pathological anatomy. All he actually published were De motu and De generatione, plus his essay defending De motu against Riolan. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed when his chambers in Whitehall were sacked in 1642, and then later in the great fire which consumed the library of the Royal College of Physicians. The manuscripts of his lecture notes (on anatomy, in the Royal College) and of "De musculis" and "De motu locali animalium" survive.
He completed his second great work, De generatione, in about 1638, and ultimately published it in 1651. It was a fundamentally new view of generation in which oviparous generation, rather than viviparous, became the general model.
His lecture notes show that he had dissected more than eighty different species of animals.
His planned book on morbid anatomy was to have been based on post-mortem examinations. He also planned one on the effect that the concept of the circulation of the blood would have on the practice of medicine. The final section of De generatione is virtually a textbook on midwifery.
He also composed a work on the generation of insects, which was among the manuscripts destroyed in 1642.
There is testimony, especially from his continental tour with Arundel in 1636, that Harvey was interested in natural history. However, I do not find enough evidence to list it as one of his scientific disciplines.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Patronage
Secondary: Academia, Personal Means, Scientific Society
Medical practice: 1602-57, including many of the prominent families of England.
Harvey married the daughter of a prominent London physician, who had been the personal physician to Elizabeth and was then to James. In addition to the dowry, about which we know nothing, he inherited an estate from his father; late in his life, when he bestowed it on the Royal College of Physicians, this estate was worth 56 per annum. He also gave the house in Folkestone, in which he was born, to Caius. Late in his life he inherited sums of money from brothers who predeceased him.
Physician to St. Batholomew's Hospital, 1609-43. This was not a governmental institution; I include it under medical practice. The post carried an annual stipend of 25, later increased to 33/6/8.
Appointed physician extraordinary to James I, 1618-25.
Appointed physician extraordinary to Charles I, 1625-31.
Physician in ordinary to Charles I, 1631-9. Senior physician in ordinary to Charles I, 1639-47. Harvey's service to Charles increasingly dominated his time and attention, especially after 1631.
By royal mandated appointed Warden of Merton College, Oxford, 1645. He held the post only about a year, until Charles' defeat in the Civil War.
Harvey was appointed Lumleian Lecturer on Anatomy and Surgery to the Royal College of Physicians in 1615 and held the position until 1656. A stipend went with the position. However, in 1640 Harvey had to sue the heirs of Lord Lumley (who had originally endowed to lectureship) to get the stipend, and the suit was still in process when he died. Munk states that he spent a great deal on the suit, so perhaps his net gain, over his lifetime, from the Lumleian lectureship was negative.
He lived with his rich merchant brothers after 1647.
Harvey died quite a wealthy man.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat, Physician
From a very early time in his career he had the patronage of James I and then (and most importantly) of Charles I. The position in St. Batholomew's Hospital came via the court.
Charles I was interested in his scientific work and provided him with deer from the royal parks for his investigations of embriology.. To Charles he dedicated De motu. He accompanied the King on his visit to Scotland in 1633 and on his Scottish compaigns of 1639, 1640 and 1641. During the Civil War he remained with the King at Oxford from 1642 to 1646 and followed the captive King to Newcastle in 1646. By royal mandate he became Warden of the Merton College and got his M.D. at Oxford.
By royal command Harvey accompanied the Duke of Lennox in travel on the continent in 1630-1. In 1636 he traveled in the retinue of Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, on a special royal embassy to Emperor Ferdinand II at Regensburg. While the royal order was undoubtedly necessary for this trip, it was Arundel himself who wanted Harvey to accompany him. Aubrey, who knew Harvey well, says that he was a great favorite of the Earl and his personal physician.
Early in his career, he owed his position in the hospital partly to Dr. Atkins (President of the Royal College of Physicians), and later the lectureship at the College to Dr. Mayerne and Dr. Clement.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
We know from a law suit that Harvey had (and administered) a secret medicine (by implication of his own making) for the stone. He was also a member of the committee of the Royal College that prepared the Pharmacopoeia londinensis, 1618.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Medical College
Informal connections: Friendship with George Ent, Dr. Edward Smith, Charles Scarburgh, and in his late days with Aubrey, Selden, Hobbes and Boyle. While he was in Oxford there was a whole circle of scientific associates and disciples.
Royal College of Physicians, 1607-57; Lumleian lecturer on anatomy, 1615-56; Censor, 1613 and threee subsequent years; Treasurer, 1628, Elect, 1627 continuing; elected president (declined) 1654. Harvey financed the construction of the College's new library in 1652-4. (It was destroyed in the great fire.) He bequeathed to the College the patrimonial estate that he had inherited.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 9, 94-9. Sir Geoffrey Keynes, The Life of William Harvey, (Oxford, 1966).
  2. _____, A Bibliography of the Writings of Dr. William Harvey, 1578- 1657, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1953).
  3. Kenneth D. Keele, William Harvey, the Man, the Physician, and the Scientist, (London, 1965).
  4. Walter Pagel, William Harvey's Biological Ideas, (New York, 1967).
  5. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 4, 2547-55.
  6. William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1878), 6, 2547-55.
  7. John Aubrey, Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O.L. Dick, (London, 1949), pp. 128-33.
  8. A.M. Cooke, "William Harvey at Oxford," Journal of the Royal College of Physicians, 9 (1975), 181-8.
  9. A.T.H. Robb-Smith, "Harvey at Oxford," Oxford Medical School Gazette, 9 (1957), 70-6.
  10. John Aikin, Biographical Memoirs of Medicine in Great Britain from the Revival of Literature to the Time of Harvey, (London, 1780), pp. 283-325. Robert G. Frank, Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists: A Study of Scientific Ideas, (Berkeley, 1980).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. T.M. Brown, The Mechanical Philosophy and Animal Oeconomy, Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, 1968, pp. 1-50.
  2. There is an immense literature about Harvey, most of it concerned with various aspects of his science. I have made no attempt to exhaust it; the effort would have been futile in any case.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
Home | Galileo | Biography | Chronology | Family | Portraits |
Science | Christianity | Library | About | Site Map | Search

Please note: We will not answer copyright requests.
See the copyright page for more information.