In Langhorne Gardens, a residential area near Folkestone seafront, an imposing stone figure gazes across the English Channel. The statue of William Harvey, often described as “the father of modern medicine”, is situated incongruously between a lively bar and several hotels, flanked by a busy car park and period buildings now converted into flats and bedsits. To Harvey’s right, the clifftop path offers a bracing walk along the windswept Leas to the historic Grand; to his left is concert and entertainment venue, the Leas Cliff Hall. On a fine day, it’s the perfect place to sit outside, watching the sea and reflecting on the natural world, while enjoying an espresso. Sharing the view with Harvey. Although he was 72 years old before coffee became a popular drink in England, he was already a caffeine aficionado, enthusiastically extolling its ability to stimulate the brain.
A classically educated physician, anatomist, scientist and clinical experimenter, William Harvey was born in 1578 in a different Folkestone to the present day. Best known now as home of the channel tunnel, in the sixteenth century, Folkestone was an important and prosperous seaport, and Harvey’s father was a prominent citizen, becoming mayor several times.
After attending Kings School in Canterbury, William Harvey went on to study medicine at Padua, then the most famous medical University in Europe. His anatomy teacher was the celebrated Girolamo Fabricius (1537-1619), who, in 1574, discovered the valves in the veins, which permit blood to flow in only one direction.
Upon returning to England, Harvey set up in medical practice in London, and in 1607, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. By 1618, he was physician to King James and in 1629, Harvey published his famous “Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus” (Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals).
In this work, Harvey proposed, and demonstrated by meticulously documented observation and experiments, that blood circulated around the body; a revolutionary theory which was contrary to the teachings of Galen, the second century Greco-Roman physician, who had claimed blood flowed in a back and forth motion, like the ebb and flow of a tide. Galenic ideas had influenced accepted medical knowledge for over a thousand years. Although Ibn al-Nafis, a Syrian physician, described the process of pulmonary transit as early as the thirteenth century, Harvey had discovered, in the process of his research into the workings of the heart, that this was what pumped the blood and circulated it; effectively revealing that the cardiovascular system was hydraulic.
Significantly, this was a time when mathematical practitioners and experimentalists in England were exploring the mechanics of pumps and valves, in a country excited by novel developments in science, navigation, technology, commerce and agriculture.
Looking up at the Harvey statue, made by A.B. Joy in 1881 and erected the same year, it is easy to forget how much medical science owes to his discovery. The statue’s supporting pillar reads simply:
Discoverer of the circulation of the blood
Born in Folkestone April 1 1578
Died in London June 3 1657
Buried at Hempstead, Essex
In 1973, on behalf of the British Medical Association, an honorary plaque was added, in the presence of the Harveian society. Founded in 1831, members meet every June in Folkestone for the town’s Harvey Sunday parade.
Sadly, all of Harvey’s extensive research notes were lost when his house was burgled in 1642, and he died in 1657 at his brother Eliab’s house in Roehampton.
But his legacy lives on, with the Harvey Grammar School set up by Eliab after his brother’s death (there was no school in the town when William was a boy, a matter he remedied in his will), a popular pub called Harvey’s at the end of Langhorne Gardens, and the block of flats just a few doors away called Harvey Mansions, which was my home for a year. And, fittingly, his name is given to the William Harvey hospital in nearby Ashford.
It seems serendipitous that Harvey’s statue gazes eternally at the ebb and flow of the waves – how blood was once perceived to behave – until his discovery changed the future of medicine forever.
Address: Langhorne Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 2EA. Walk down from the point indicated on the map towards the sea and the statue is found just before you reach the Leas Cliff Hall.
Dear, Peter. 2001. Revolutionising the Sciences: European Knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700. Palgrave
Keynes, Geoffrey. 1966. The Life of William Harvey. Oxford University Press
Webster, Charles. 1979. William Harvey and the crisis of medicine in Jacobean England. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press
Bylebyl, Jerome J. 1979. The medical side of Harvey’s discovery: the normal and the abnormal. In Bylebyl, Jerome J, ed. William Harvey and his age: The professional and social context of the discovery of the circulation. John Hopkins University Press
Al-Khalili, Jim. 2010. Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Allen Lane
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABTvNR59K5Q – a YouTube video which explains blood circulation