Understanding The Motion of the Heart: From Knowledge to Practice

Illustration of figure with blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points (c. 1530 – 1545)

Welcome back to the Daily Dose! Today, I am featuring an excerpt from a post by Catherine Osborn, our series editor for MedHum Monday. You can read the full post at the Dittrick Museum!

Matters of the heart are often confusing. Early scientists wondered if “the motion of the heart was only to be comprehended by God” [1]. The heart and blood were the subjects of much medical debate in the 17th century when an English physician questioned classic anatomical texts. Although previous anatomists like Vesalius had questioned traditional views, William Harvey was the first to accurately describe the circulation of blood throughout the body. Once scientists understood the regular functions of the cardiovascular system, medical pioneers explored how to manipulate the flow of blood. These later discoveries saved patients from deaths caused by  surgical shock and heart disease.

Galen and Vesalius: Early Circulatory Notions

Until William Harvey’s findings were published in 1628, Galen’s work from centuries before remained the central physiological understanding of the motions of the heart and blood [1,2]. Galen taught that venous and arterial blood flowed as two different systems [3,4]. The liver was thought to produce the venous blood. In a separate system, the heart produced arterial blood and ‘spirits’ that provided heat and life to the rest of the body. According to Galen, the lungs were mainly responsible for cooling this vital blood.

Vesalius illustration from 1543 showing a two-chambered heart.

Much of Galen’s experimentation was on non-human animals, and thus his descriptions were understandably flawed [4]. For example, he described the heart as a two chambered organ divided by a septum containing invisible pores. These pores supposedly allowed blood to pass from the right to left chambers.

Despite the errors in this model, later anatomists [read more]

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For more on Marvels, Mavericks, and Medicine, Dr. Brandy Schillace will be speaking at Belt Magazine’s Happy Dog University on Tuesday, June 10th at 7:30 pm.



[1] Harvey, William. 1628. “On the Motions of the Hearth and Blood” p. 3-75. In The Works of William Harvey, M.D. 1847 Edition. Robert Willis, trans. London.

[2] Willis, Robert. 1847. “A Life of the Author” p. xv-xxxiv. In The Works of William Harvey, M.D. London.

[3] Payne, Joseph Frank. 1896. “The Problem of Circulation” p. 35-36. In Harvey and Galen. London: Oxford University Press Warehouse.

[4] Pagel, Walter. 1967. William Harvey’s Biological Ideas: Selected Aspects and Historical Background. Switzerland: Basler Druck-und Verlagsanstalt.


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