The best books about discovering the circulation of the blood

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by history since I was a fairly sickly child, which means I was gradually drawn towards the history of medicine. Add to that having a hereditary blood clotting condition and you can see why this topic appeals to me! I have a BA and a PhD in History from University College London and have held posts in the universities of Cambridge, Newcastle, Reading, and then at The Open University. I’ve also held visiting professorships in Vienna, Texas, and Minnesota and have published six books as well as editing others. I’m sort of retired but still writing and lecturing.

I wrote...

Greek and Roman Medicine

By Helen King,

Book cover of Greek and Roman Medicine

What is my book about?

I tried to summarize ancient Greek and Roman medicine in a book you could read in a day. What happened if you felt ill? Who could help? What treatments were on offer – bleeding was one – and would they make any difference? How did people think the body worked? 

Ancient medicine is pre-antibiotics, and indeed pre-all the knowledge of the body which we take for granted; including how blood moves around the body. My final chapter covered the influence of ancient medicine up to the nineteenth century (when people still translated Greek and Roman texts, because they thought the medicine worked!) and I briefly mentioned William Harvey who discovered circulation and published his book on it in 1628. Although saying something new, he still talked about the ancients: “Mistress Antiquity”. He still had to show that he knew the work of Aristotle and Galen, as well as of his contemporaries.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Harvey's Heart: The Discovery of Blood Circulation

Why did I love 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.

By Andrew Gregory,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Harvey's Heart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The tale of William Harvey's momentous discovery - that the blood vessels form a closed system, carrying blood pumped rapidly around the body by the heart - is one of ingenuity, imagination and perseverence, and remarkable use of experiment, observation and skill.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jean Hamburger, Barbara Wright (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Diary of William Harvey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French

Book cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost

Why did I love 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.

By Iain Pears,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked An Instance of the Fingerpost as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A fictional tour de force which combines erudition with mystery' PD James

Set in Oxford in the 1660s - a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment - this remarkable novel centres around a young woman, Sarah Blundy, who stands accused of the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. Four witnesses describe the events surrounding his death: Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the invention of blood transfusion;Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John Wallis, chief cryptographer…

Book cover of Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce

Why did I love 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.

By Douglas Starr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Blood as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The story of blood is a story of transformation, divided into three eras. The first period, from antiquity to the early twentieth century, involves the transformation of blood from a magical substance - the blood of Christ as holy sacrament - to a component of human anatomy, capable of being studied and turned into a source of healing. In the next era, which lasts until the end of the Second World War, the scientific curiosity of blood becomes a strategic material. We see medical scientists master the resource, learning the techniques of mass collections and storage, ironically aided in their…

The Circulation of the Blood and Other Writings

By William Harvey, Kenneth Franklin (translator),

Book cover of The Circulation of the Blood and Other Writings

Why did I love 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!

By William Harvey, Kenneth Franklin (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Circulation of the Blood and Other Writings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…

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