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Book Prize Blog: Circulation – William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea, by Thomas Wright

26 Oct, 2012

Cover image for ‘Circulation’

Next up on our Book Prize Blog is ‘Circulation‘, Thomas Wright’s biography of the seventeenth century physician William Harvey. Holly Story dissects the book.

In Thomas Wright’s biography, Dr William Harvey leaps from the page as a man of insatiable curiosity whose interest in nature, anatomy, people, the city of London, the countryside of Kent, the court of the King, drove his life’s work.

The book is divided into “chronological chapters”, providing the narrative of Harvey’s life and work, interspersed with “thematic essays”. These include an account of the history of anatomy and of the cultural significance of the heart in the seventeenth century. It is an unusual way to construct a biography, but by placing Harvey’s work within these contexts, Wright shows us why his discoveries seemed so radical and so disruptive to his contemporaries. It’s a convincing method. The notion that Harvey’s was a “revolutionary” idea may at first seem hyperbolic, but by the end of the book I was indeed considering the possibility that Harvey unwittingly abetted the overthrow of the monarchy.

Wright also invests a great deal of time in elucidating the methods and processes by which Harvey arrived at his theory of circulation. Throughout the book Wright is careful not to give an anachronistic account of Harvey’s ‘scientific’ experiments. Instead he emphasises the role of Aristotelian philosophy in Harvey’s theories, explaining that for the seventeenth century thinker “theory invariably informed and preceded observation…the universal truth coming before the individual fact”. After the enlightenment, this model was increasingly reversed, with empirical observation forming the basis of most scientific enquiry. The role of philosophy and imaginative thought in the history of science is, Wright comments, often underplayed or ignored in modern accounts, as though it were a shameful anomaly in the story of scientific discovery.

In contrast, Wright does not shy away from acknowledging and even celebrating the importance of imagination to Harvey’s work. Two of the book’s eight essays are given over to exploring ‘The landscape of Harvey’s imagination’. In these essays Wright explores the interplay between natural philosophy and poetry in the period. The poet and preacher John Donne features heavily, George Chapman makes an appearance, as do Ben Jonson and even William Blake – a notoriously vehement opponent of empiricism.

For me, these essays were a tantalising glimpse of how the physician’s consideration of the human form, could have influenced, or been influenced by, the poetic forms of his period. John Donne spoke of the body as “a little world made cunningly”; he could just as well have been talking about a sonnet. These forays may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed being invited to explore beyond Harvey’s research chamber.

Wright presents his book as “the biography of an idea as much as it is the biography of a man”. In fact, I think the book’s reach is even broader. It traces the evolution of Harvey’s theory of circulation, but it also places that theory within the evolution of philosophical and scientific thought in the seventeenth century. And while we contemplate the philosophies of Bacon or Descartes, Wright gently prompts us to turn the mirror on ourselves:

“Today…the laboratory has…become the only arena in which ‘truth’ can be faithfully tested. Moreover, many people now regard the brain as a mere camera obscura on to which a ‘true’ image of reality is mechanically projected via our eyes.”.

It leaves us to wonder – is there still room for imagination in modern science?

Below is a short film which has been produced by the Wellcome Trust as part of a series of shorts about the shortlisted titles. To view the full playlist visit the Wellcome Trust YouTube channel.

For further information and book club reading packs for all the shortlisted entries please visit the Book Prize website.

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