William Harvey 1578-1657

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William HARVEY 1578-1657

Biographical Note

Born in Folkestone, Kent, son of Thomas Harvey, farmer. BA Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1597, went to Padua to study medicine in 1600, graduated MD there 1602. Returned to London to begin practising as a physician; licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians 1604, fellow 1607, censor 1609, Lumleian lecturer 1615, held various College offices subsequently. Physician to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1609. Appointed one of the royal physicians 1618, and attended James I in his last illness; Charles I reconfirmed his appointment, making him physician in ordinary 1630, and senior physician in ordinary 1639. Travelled in Europe in the early 1630s with the Duke of Lennox, and accompanied Charles I to Edinburgh in 1633; in the 1640s, he moved around the country with the King’s retinue, witnessing battles, and settling in Oxford with the royal court 1642-46 (where Charles appointed him Warden of Merton College, 1643). Returned to London 1647 where he spent his remaining years, living with his brother. He was a keen experimental scientist and is celebrated for having made one of the great breakthroughs in medical knowledge of the early modern period, of the circulation of the blood; he deduced this around 1617 and published his theories as De motu cordis, 1628. Despite initial scepticism, the validity of his findings was increasingly accepted by the time of his death.


Harvey acquired books throughout his life. His apartment in Whitehall Palace was ransacked in 1642 and he lamented the destruction, then, of many of his working papers; it is likely that books were lost too. His will refers to the “scattered remnants of my poore librarie” and his itinerant life in the 1640s, with the disruption of the Civil War probably led to books being lost or left behind. In 1651 he agreed to meet the cost of building a new library for the Royal College of Physicians, completed during the following year. In his will, he directed his medical colleagues Sir George Ent and Sir Charles Scarburgh to give to the College such of his books and papers as seemed worthwhile, though elsewhere in the will there is an outright bequest of all his books and papers to the College. It seems likely that most of his library did indeed go to the College either during his last years, or immediately after his death. The College, and its library, were entirely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 and only a few survivals from Harvey’s library can be traced today. Some of his autograph manuscripts survive among the Sloane manuscripts at the British Library. Examples: BL C.61.h.4.