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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Why were William Harvey’s discoveries rejected?

By Susana Sidders

Although, William Harvey (1578-1657) discovered the blood circulatory system in the body, he had little impact on treatment at the time. His theories proved that some of Galen’s ideas were wrong; however, people were reluctant to accept the new theory, as it would show their own learning was false.

William Harvey, who was born in Folkestone on 1 April 1578, concentrated his work on Physiology (how the body works) rather than the cause of illness or treatment. His work had little relevance to that of physicians and the problems of disease.

At this time, the church was strong and controlled much of medicine and its treatments. The church believed that Galen was right, and the consequence of disagreement was to be classed as a heretic and be burned at the stake.

Harvey was a very curious man and carried out a number of dissections. Refusing to accept traditional beliefs at face value, he took a scientific approach, and carried out his own experiments. Many disagreed with dissection, believing the dead should be given Christian burials.

Physicians, who had used Galen’s ideas, such as purging or bleeding, for just about everything, would have faced ruin, if they had to admit to being wrong. By accepting Harvey’s discoveries, all of Galen’s ideas could be brought into disrepute.

The cost of exchanging Galen’s books and equipment used in his remedies to that of Harvey’s, often unproven theories, was also prohibitive.
Harvey was prevented from proving many of his theories through a lack of technology, for example, the microscope had not been invented at that time.

Unfortunately, whilst Harvey was ultimately proved to be right, at the time he had little impact on treatments.

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