The best books about discovering the circulation of the blood

The Books I Picked & Why

Harvey's Heart: The Discovery of Blood Circulation

By Andrew Gregory

Harvey's Heart: The Discovery of Blood Circulation

Why this book?

Harvey’s Heart is a tiny book but it packs in a lot, including plenty of illustrations. I used to teach the history of medicine and I found blood circulation a difficult topic – I’m squeamish myself, and faint at blood tests, which doesn’t help! But this book makes Harvey’s ideas very clear, not least how something we now take for granted wasn’t obvious at all until the 17th century.

His breakthrough was a weird mix of building on discoveries by others – such as knowing that valves stop the blood moving backwards – while observing, experimenting, and speculating for himself. Although he published his theory in 1628, he seems to have worked it out maybe ten years earlier. The conventions of science in his day meant he had to offer it to the world rather cautiously, because saying that the ancients had got it wrong was a dangerous claim to make.


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The Diary of William Harvey: The Imaginary Journal of the Physician Who Revolutionized Medicine

By Jean Hamburger, Barbara Wright

The Diary of William Harvey: The Imaginary Journal of the Physician Who Revolutionized Medicine

Why this book?

It was a great idea to make Harvey come to life by imagining what he’d have written in his diary! This is a well-researched book which gets across how much more there was to Harvey than just the circulation of the blood. His family, his work on the development of the embryo, his role as a physician to King Charles I, and his encounters with witches – a great story – as well as a convincing sense of the sort of man he was and of the times in which he lived.


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An Instance of the Fingerpost

By Iain Pears

An Instance of the Fingerpost

Why this book?

When Harvey published his theory that the heart pumped a huge amount of blood around the body, that wasn’t the end of it. People still needed to understand blood vessels, blood transfusion, blood groups, blood cells, diagnostic blood tests…

In this thriller, set in Oxford in the 1660s, four different people tell us their versions of the same events surrounding the murder of a fellow of the University. The reader is left to work out what actually happened. We see people trying to develop some of the implications of the circulation of the blood; in particular, can you change someone’s character by transfusing someone else’s blood into them, can blood from an animal be safely passed into a person, and why does blood transfusion sometimes end in death? There’s a real sense here of how the circulation challenged everything people thought they’d known.


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Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce

By Douglas Starr

Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce

Why this book?

We think of blood as a gift: if you’re a blood donor you ‘give’ blood. But this book examines how it became a marketable commodity. It starts with Harvey but goes up to CJD and the AIDS crisis. It’s a fascinating story of generosity and greed as well as of those who worked in hematology in the early days when very little was known for sure. With lots of engrossing anecdotes, Starr brings to life the people whose experiments led to our knowledge today.


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The Circulation of the Blood and Other Writings

By William Harvey, Kenneth Franklin

The Circulation of the Blood and Other Writings

Why this book?

Go on. Give yourself a treat! Read the book which started it all! There’s nothing quite like reading the original source. Harvey wrote in Latin but this is a good translation with an excellent introduction by Andrew Wear, an expert on the period. And as a bonus, the Everyman edition includes The Anatomy of Thomas Parr – an account of the dissection of a Shropshire farmer said to be 152 years old, performed by Harvey himself. What killed Parr? Coming to London, a city “full of the filth of men”. Be warned!


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