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- The Circulation of the Blood - 1/4 -


by Thomas H. Huxley


[*footnote] A Lecture delivered in the Free Trade Hall, November 2nd, 1878.

I DESIRE this evening to give you some account of the life and labours of a very noble Englishman--William Harvey.

William Harvey was born in the year 1578, and as he lived until the year 1657, he very nearly attained the age of 80. He was the son of a small landowner in Kent, who was sufficiently wealthy to send this, his eldest son, to the University of Cambridge; while he embarked the others in mercantile pursuits, in which they all, as time passed on, attained riches.

William Harvey, after pursuing his education at Cambridge, and taking his degree there, thought it was advisable--and justly thought so, in the then state of University education--to proceed to Italy, which at that time was one of the great centres of intellectual activity in Europe, as all friends of freedom hope it will become again, sooner or later. In those days the University of Padua had a great renown; and Harvey went there and studied under a man who was then very famous--Fabricius of Aquapendente. On his return to England, Harvey became a member of the College of Physicians in London, and entered into practice; and, I suppose, as an indispensable step thereto, proceeded to marry. He very soon became one of the most eminent members of the profession in London; and, about the year 1616, he was elected by the College of Physicians their Professor of Anatomy. It was while Harvey held this office that he made public that great discovery of the circulation of the blood and the movements of the heart, the nature of which I shall endeavour by-and-by to explain to you at length. Shortly afterwards, Charles the First having succeeded to the throne in 1625, Harvey became one of the king's physicians; and it is much to the credit of the unfortunate monarch--who, whatever his faults may have been, was one of the few English monarchs who have shown a taste for art and science--that Harvey became his attached and devoted friend as well as servant; and that the king, on the other hand, did all he could to advance Harvey's investigations. But, as you know, evil times came on; and Harvey, after the fortunes of his royal master were broken, being then a man of somewhat advanced years--over 60 years of age, in fact--retired to the society of his brothers in and near London, and among them pursued his studies until the day of his death. Harvey's career is a life which offers no salient points of interest to the biographer. It was a life devoted to study and investigation; and it was a life the devotion of which was amply rewarded, as I shall have occasion to point out to you, by its results.

Harvey, by the diversity, the variety, and the thoroughness of his investigations, was enabled to give an entirely new direction to at least two branches--and two of the most important branches--of what now-a-days we call Biological Science. On the one hand, he founded all our modern physiology by the discovery of the exact nature of the motions of the heart, and of the course in which the blood is propelled through the body; and, on the other, he laid the foundation of that study of development which has been so much advanced of late years, and which constitutes one of the great pillars of the doctrine of evolution. This doctrine, I need hardly tell you, is now tending to revolutionise our conceptions of the origin of living things, exactly in the same way as Harvey's discovery of the circulation in the seventeeth century revolutionised the conceptions which men had previously entertained with regard to physiological processes.

It would, I regret, be quite impossible for me to attempt, in the course of the time I can presume to hold you here, to unfold the history of more than one of these great investigations of Harvey. I call them "great investigations," as distinguished from "large publications." I have in my hand a little book, which those of you who are at a great distance may have some difficulty in seeing, and which I value very much. It is, I am afraid, sadly thumbed and scratched with annotations by a very humble successor and follower of Harvey. This little book is the edition of 1651 of the 'Exercitationes de Generatione'; and if you were to add another little book, printed in the same small type, and about one-seventh of the thickness, you would have the sum total of the printed matter which Harvey contributed to our literature. And yet in that sum total was contained, I may say, the materials of two revolutions in as many of the main branches of biological science. If Harvey's published labours can be condensed into so small a compass, you must recollect that it is not because he did not do a great deal more. We know very well that he did accumulate a very considerable number of observations on the most varied topics of medicine, surgery, and natural history. But, as I mentioned to you just now, Harvey, for a time, took the royal side in the domestic quarrel of the Great Rebellion, as it is called; and the Parliament, not unnaturally resenting that action of his, sent soldiers to seize his papers. And while I imagine they found nothing treasonable among those papers, yet, in the process of rummaging through them, they destroyed all the materials which Harvey had spent a laborious life in accumulating; and hence it is that the man's work and labours are represented by so little in apparent bulk.

What I chiefly propose to do to-night is to lay before you an account of the nature of the discovery which Harvey made, and which is termed the Discovery of the Circulation of the Blood. And I desire also, with some particularity, to draw your attention to the methods by which that discovery was achieved; for, in both these respects, I think, there will be much matter for profitable reflection.

Let me point out to you, in the first place, with respect to this important matter of the movements of the heart and the course of the blood in the body, that there is a certain amount of knowledge which must have been obtained without men taking the trouble to seek it--knowledge which must have been taken in, in the course of time, by everybody who followed the trade of a butcher, and still more so by those people who, in ancient times, professed to divine the course of future events from the entrails of animals. It is quite obvious to all, from ordinary accidents, that the bodies of all the higher animals contain a hot red fluid--the blood. Everybody can see upon the surface of some part of the skin, underneath that skin, pulsating tubes, which we know as the arteries. Everybody can see under the surface of the skin more delicate and softer looking tubes, which do not pulsate, which are of a bluish colour, and are termed the veins. And every person who has seen a recently killed animal opened knows that these two kinds of tubes to which I have just referred, are connected with an apparatus which is placed in the chest, which apparatus, in recently killed animals, is still pulsating. And you know that in yourselves you can feel the pulsation of this organ, the heart, between the fifth and sixth ribs. I take it that this much of anatomy and physiology has been known from the oldest times, not only as a matter of curiosity, but because one of the great objects of men, from their earliest recorded existence, has been to kill one another, and it was a matter of considerable importance to know which was the best place for hitting an enemy. I can refer you to very ancient records for most precise and clear information that one of the best places is to smite him between the fifth and sixth ribs. Now that is a very good piece of regional anatomy, for that is the place where the heart strikes in its pulsations, and the use of smiting there is that you go straight to the heart. Well, all that must have been known from time immemorial--at least for 4,000 or 5,000 years before the commencement of our era--because we know that for as great a period as that the Egyptians, at any rate, whatever may have been the case with other people, were in the enjoyment of a highly developed civilisation. But of what knowledge they may have possessed beyond this we know nothing; and in tracing back the springs of the origin of everything that we call "modern science" (which is not merely knowing, but knowing systematically, and with the intention and endeavour to find out the causal connection of things)--I say that when we trace back the different lines of all the modern sciences we come at length to one epoch and to one country--the epoch being about the fourth and fifth centuries before Christ, and the country being ancient Greece. It is there that we find the commencement and the root of every branch of physical science and of scientific method. If we go back to that time we have in the works attributed to Aristotle, who flourished between 300 and 400 years before Christ, a sort of encyclopaedia of the scientific knowledge of that day--and a very marvellous collection of, in many respects, accurate and precise knowledge it is. But, so far as regards this particular topic, Aristotle, it must be confessed, has not got very far beyond common knowledge. He knows a little about the structure of the heart. I do not think that his knowledge is so inaccurate as many people fancy, but it does not amount to much. A very few years after his time, however, there was a Greek philosopher, Erasistratus, who lived about three hundred years before Christ, and who must have pursued anatomy with much care, for he made the important discovery that there are membranous flaps, which are now called "valves," at the origins of the great vessels; and that there are certain other valves in the interior of the heart itself.

Fig. 1.--The apparatus of the circulation, as at present known. The capillary vessels, which connect the arteries and veins, are omitted, on account of their small size. The shading of the "venous system" is given to all the vessels which contain venous blood; that of the "arterial system" to all the vessels which contain arterial blood.

I have here (Fig. 1) a purposely rough, but, so far as it goes, accurate, diagram of the structure of the heart and the course of the blood. The heart is supposed to be divided into two portions. It would be possible, by very careful dissection, to split the heart down the middle of a partition, or so-called 'septum', which exists in it, and to divide it into the two portions which you see here represented; in which case we should have a left heart and a right heart, quite distinct from one another. You will observe that there is a portion of each heart which is what is called the ventricle. Now the ancients applied the term 'heart' simply and solely to the ventricles. They did not count the rest of the heart--what we now speak of as the 'auricles'--as any part of the heart at all; but when they spoke of the heart they meant the left and the right ventricles; and they described those great vessels, which we now call the 'pulmonary veins' and the 'vena cava', as opening directly into the heart itself.

What Erasistratus made out was that, at the roots of the aorta and the pulmonary artery (Fig. 1) there were valves, which opened in the direction indicated by the arrows; and, on the other hand, that at the junction of what he called the veins with the heart there were other valves, which also opened again in the direction indicated by the arrows. This was a very capital discovery, because it proved that if the heart was full of fluid, and if there were any means of causing that fluid in the ventricles to move, then the fluid could move only in one direction; for you will observe that, as soon as the fluid is compressed, the two valves between the ventricles and the veins will be shut, and the fluid will be obliged to move into the arteries; and, if it tries to get back from them into the heart, it is prevented from doing so by the valves at the origin of the arteries, which we now call the semilunar valves (half-moon shaped valves); so that it is impossible, if the fluid move at all, that it should move in any other

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