The scene: the famous Teatro Anatomico, of the University of Padua, Italy, in the early modern times of the 1600s. A young William Harvey was studiously paying attention to how his eminent professor, Girolamo Fabrizi da Acquaponte, was publicly dissecting dead criminals and living animals in the university’s theater.
Now imagine the same Harvey later being described as a master in the art of public dissections, dressed in a white bonnet and white apron to prevent blood splattering on his clothes, while skilfully waving a silver-tipped whalebone baton to draw attention to certain parts of the dissected body, all of this being done by the light of a candle “into the excavated caverns of the corpse”. An anatomy was often performed in those times over a period of five days, during which the process of bodily decomposition was effectively taking place. Now imagine Harvey cackling and a flash of lightning gleaming in the background and you’ve got yourself a perfectly valid horror movie script. Except, this was at one point, real life. Yikes!
“He concluded that the role of the heart is not that of producing heat, but of pumping blood, since the beat of the ventricles sends the blood through the lungs and heart, and subsequently throughout the entire body!”
But Harvey’s ‘unconventional’ skills of commendably wandering through cavernous bodies have ended up serving us all, when his Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus or more commonly known as de Motu Cordis was published in 1628. We have this wonderful madman to thank for understanding the way in which blood flows through the body. He concluded that the role of the heart is not that of producing heat, but of pumping blood, since the beat of the ventricles sends the blood through the lungs and heart, and subsequently throughout the entire body. Then, it is amid the veins that the blood returns from the periphery of the body to the center, smaller veins accumulating into larger ones, and ending up in the vena cava and right atrium. Therefore, Harvey proved that the blood in the animal body moves continuously into a circular-like motion. Up until then, it was believed that the sole function of the heart was that of producing heat and that blood would be repeatedly replenished by way of ingested food and that it would dissipate throughout the tissue in the body.
So maybe we’ll try to forget that Harvey personally performed his father’s autopsy and liked to talk about his father’s unusual colon size.
Written by O.P.
Sources: National Library of Medicine (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), guardian.com, princeton.edu, Brazilian Journal of Anesthesiology. “Serendipity in medicine and anesthesiology” (scielo.br).