10/03/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

William Harvey and the Myth of Objective, Empirical Science

Every schoolchild knows (or ought to know) that it was William Harvey who discovered the circulation of the blood in the early 1600s. The Englishman's theory -- that blood flows to and from the heart in a closed system -- overturned Galenic anatomical and physiological orthodoxy, and inspired Descartes' mechanistic idea that the heart works like a pump.

I myself was taught this at my English upper school. Our history teacher explained that Harvey's discovery was a result of his commitment to the new inductive and empirical "scientific method" espoused by the philosopher Francis Bacon. Ignoring tradition, Harvey had, she said, experimented alone in his research chamber, year after year, dissecting human corpses and putting thousands of living animals to the knife, in order to see for himself how the heart functioned. As well as being a prophet of the soulless Descartian body-machine, and a dedicated Baconian, there was, she implied, also a touch of Doctor Frankenstein about Harvey. And so in class we imagined Mr W.H. as a half-crazed Jacobean gent -- ruff splattered with gore -- chuckling away to himself as he wielded his scalpel by candlelight.

My 15-year-old schoolboy self would be surprised to learn that he would one day write a biography of "bloody" William Harvey -- but that's what's happened. Yet, who knows, perhaps it was that schoolboy image of Harvey as Frankenstein that partly inspired me to write William Harvey: A Life in Circulation (published this week by OUP). In the book I examine how much the Frankenstein-Harvey, and the Descartian-Baconian Harvey of my school textbook, actually derive from the historical record, and how much they owe to our own beliefs about how science ought to be carried out. The book is, in other words, a historical "experiment," modeled on the experiments of science historians such as Steven Shapin.

I began my research by reading the Harvey biographies of Power, Chauvois and Keynes. Their Harvey is more complex than the caricature of the textbook, yet there are many similarities. They evoke a rational, detached experimenter, whose research proceeded logically, on an inevitable progress towards truth -- a prototype of the modern inductive scientist, who by some trick of historical fate just happened to be dressed in doublet rather than a lab coat. Their Harvey is a pioneer who looks forward to Descartes and to modern biological theory; he even has the capacity to magically step outside of time, and the intellectual horizon of the 17th century, and to gaze down at the body from an objective, eternal perspective.

As my researches continued (and especially after I encountered the brilliant scholarly writings of Pagel, Cunningham, French and Wear) I realized that the truth about Harvey was neither as pure nor as simple. While Harvey was indeed committed to experimentation, his methods were informed by Aristotelian ideas completely alien to empirical science. He drew inspiration from countless contemporary esoteric and everyday sources, too -- from Alchemical lore and political theory, to the mystical idea of the perfect circle; from developments in technology, to the belief in the interconnected micro- and macrocosm.

In a word, Harvey was no mere lab technician, but a brilliant thinker -- and a thoroughly 17th-century thinker at that. The work of his brain was easily as important as that of his blood-stained hands. His mind -- with its ability to make imaginative connections between apparently disparate facts, and to see old problems from new angles -- indeed seemed more significant than the matter he examined. Instead of patiently accumulating a mountain of data until it miraculously assumed the outline of a theory (Bacon's suggested method) Harvey had first considered if "the blood might have a circular motion" and only afterwards "found it to be true," thus foreshadowing the poet William Blake who wrote, "what is now proved was once only imagined." And rather than looking forward, Harvey (a representative Renaissance man) had actually gone back to Aristotle in order to get to the future -- so he was a Janus, gazing both forward and back.

As for Bacon and Descartes, Harvey despised them. "[Bacon] writes Philosophy like a Lord Chancellor," he sneered, caricaturing Bacon as a barrister-philosopher who regards truth as something to be proven by factual evidence alone. Descartes, meanwhile, was an arrant "shit-breeches" whose material (hence the "shit" jibe) and mechanistic explanations of the body "do not reach that which is chiefly concerned in the operations of nature... namely God, whose operations ... do all tend to some certain end for some certain good."

If Harvey's religious sentiments surprised me, then I was shocked by his coarse, splenetic style. Far from being the calm rationalist of tradition, he was a notoriously "choleric hot-head," who brandished his dagger "upon every slight occasion," and littered his scholarly writings with rants and expletives. In describing his research, Harvey rarely employed the passive tense and the third person beloved of modern scientists -- reading him you are left in no doubt, "damme!," that a passionate man is writing, with his body and heart as much as his brain, at a specific moment in history.

To my disappointment I found out that Harvey was no lonely, obsessive Frankenstein, either, but a gregarious courtier whose theory was mostly conceived and born in public, his colleagues acting as reluctant midwives. The Frankenstein parallel was interesting, though, as it located the myth of the solitary "scientist" (a word coined in the 1830s) in the Romantic period. The myth of the detached and disembodied scientist, meanwhile, can be traced back to the seventeenth century philosophy of Monsieur shit-breeches himself.

The upshot of all these discoveries is that the William Harvey who strides rapidly across the pages of my book (dagger in one hand, subtle knife in the other) is utterly different from the Harvey I learned about at school, and the Harvey depicted by previous biographers. That traditional portrait is, I argue, an icon of an objective, quasi-mystical form of empirical science that Harvey himself never practiced or believed in, but which continues to find adherents today.