WILLIAM HARVEY (1578-1657)

1628 – London, England

‘Circulation of the blood’

Portrait of WILLIAM HARVEY ©


As WILLIAM GILBERT had begun in physics, and FRANCIS BACON had subsequently implored, Harvey was the first to take a rational, modern, scientific approach to his observations in biology. Rather than taking the approach of the philosophers, which placed great emphasis upon thinking about what might be the case, Harvey cast aside prejudices and only ‘induced’ conclusions based on the results of experiments and dissections, which could be repeated identically again and again.

After what GALEN had begun and VESALIUS had challenged, Harvey credibly launched perhaps the most significant theory in his field of biology. He postulated and convincingly proved that blood circulated in the body via the heart – itself little more than a biological pump.

Galen had concluded that blood was made in the liver from food, which acted as a fuel, which the body used up, thereby requiring more food to keep a constant supply. Vesalius added little to this theory. Harvey, physician to Kings James I and later Charles I proved his theory of circulation through rigorous and repeated experimentation. He correctly concluded that blood was not used up, but is recycled around the body.

An illustration depicting William Harvey (April 1, 1578 - June 3, 1657), the medical doctor credited with first describing the properties of the human circulatory system, seeing a patient. ©


His dissections proved that the arteries took blood from the heart to the extremities of the body, able to do so because of the heart’s pump-like action. He could see that the pulses in arteries came immediately after the heart contracted, and became certain that the pulse was due to blood flowing into the vessels.
By careful observation he found that blood entered the right side of the heart and was forced into the lungs, before returning to the left side of the heart. From there it was pumped via the aorta into the arteries around the body.

Harvey realized that the amount of blood flowing around the system was too much for the liver to produce. The blood had to be circulating back to the veins; which, with their series of one-way valves, brought blood back to the heart.
Without a microscope it was impossible to see the minute capillaries that linked the arteries to the veins.

Exercitatio anatomica de motu cordis et sanguinis in animalibus William Harvey (1628)

Harvey published his findings in the 720 page ‘Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus‘ ( Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of The Heart and Blood in Animals ) at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1628.

Initially supported by some academics, an equal number rejected his ideas. One area of weakness was that he was unable to offer a proven explanation for how the blood moved from the arteries to the veins. He speculated that the exchange took place through vessels too small for the human eye to see, which was confirmed shortly after his death with the discovery of capillaries by Marcello Malphigi with the recently invented microscope.

Even then, nobody knew what blood was doing. It would take another hundred years before ANTOINE LAVOISIER discovered oxygen and worked out what it did in the body.

In 1651, Harvey published ‘Exercitationes de Generatione Animalium‘ ( Essays on the Generation of Animals ), a work in the area of reproduction which included conjecture that rejected the ‘spontaneous generation’ theory of reproduction which had hitherto persisted. His belief that the egg was at the root of life gained acceptance long before the observational proof some two centuries later.

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ROBERT HOOKE (1635-1703)

1670 – England

‘Within the limits of elasticity, the extension ( Strain ) of an elastic material is proportional to the applied stretching force ( Stress )’

Hooke’s law applies to all kinds of materials, from rubber balls to steel springs. The law helps define the limits of elasticity of a material.

In equation form; the law is expressed as F = kx, where F is force, x change in length and k is a constant. The constant is known as Young’s Modulus, after THOMAS YOUNG who in 1802 gave physical meaning to k.

Boyle and Hooke formed the nucleus of scientists at Gresham College in Oxford who were to create the Royal Society in 1662 and Hooke served as its secretary until his death. Newton disliked Hooke’s combative style (Hooke accused Newton of plagiarism, sparking a lifelong feud between the two) and refused to attend Royal Society meetings while Hooke was a secretary.

Hooke mistrusted his contemporaries so much that when he discovered his law he published it as a Latin anagram, ceiiinosssttvu, in his book on elasticity.

Two years later, when he was sure that the law could be proved by experiments on springs, he revealed that the anagram meant Ut tensio sic vis. That is, the power of any spring is in the same proportion with the tension thereof.

At the same time, in 1665 Hooke published his work Micrographia presenting fifty-seven illustrations drawn by him of the wonders seen with the microscope.

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1674 – Netherlands

Portrait of Leeuwenhoek

Leeuwenhoek was probably inspired to take up microscopy after seeing a copy of HOOKE’s Micrographia, though as a draper he was likely to have already been using lenses to examine cloth.
Unlike Hooke, Leeuwenhoek did not use a two lens compound microscope, but a single high quality lens, which could be described simply as a magnifying glass rather than a microscope. Leeuwenhoek is known to have made over 500 of these single–lens microscopes. They are simple devices just a few inches long, with the lens mounted in a tiny hole in a brass plate. The specimen is mounted on a point that sticks up in front of the lens. Two screws move the specimen for focusing. All else that is needed is careful lighting and a very steady, sharp eye.

After an introduction to Henry Oldenburg of the Royal Society in London from Dutch physician and anatomist Regnier de Graaf (discoverer of the egg-making follicles in the human ovary which now bear his name), Leeuwenhoek was encouraged to write to the Society’s journal ‘Philosophical Transactions’.

Leeuwenhoek’s letters were translated into Latin and English from the Dutch and he reported seeing tiny creatures in lake-water.

‘ I found floating therein divers earthly particles, and some green streaks, spirally wound serpentwise, and orderly arranged after the manner of copper or tin worms which distillers use to cool their liquors as they distil over. The whole circumference of each of these streaks was about the thickness of a hair of one’s head ’

Leeuwenhoek’s descriptions of ‘animalcules’ in water from different sources – rainwater, pond water, well water, sea water and so on – were verified by independent witnesses, including the vicar of Delft. Hooke too confirmed his findings with his own observations performed in front of expert witnesses, including Sir Christopher Wren.
Leeuwenhoek came close to understanding that bacteria were germs that cause disease but it took another century before LOUIS PASTEUR made that step.

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‘Scanning Electron Microscope’

1980 – Switzerland

SEM image of Caffeine crystals. Credit: Annie Cavanagh. Wellcome ImagesSEM image of Diatom frustule.SEM image of Moth Fly

If a needle charged with electricity is placed extremely close to the surface of a metal or semi-conductor a miniscule but measurable electric current, known as a ‘tunneling current’ will leap the gap. This current is extraordinarily sensitive to the width of the gap. The size of the tunneling current therefore reveals the distance between the needle tip and the surface.

Photograph of Gerd Binnig - worked on the scanning-tunneling electron microscope ©


Photograph of Heinrich Rohrer - worked on the scanning-tunneling electron microscope ©


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