Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/August 1878/Professor Huxley's Address at the Harvey Tricentenary

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MR. PRESIDENT: In attempting to fulfill the task you have imposed upon me, I am mindful that I address myself to an audience which is already familiar with William Harvey's claims to the honor which we are assembled to show him. For, within these walls, the memory of your illustrious Fellow and chief benefactor is kept perennially green by the customary piety of the speaker of the annual oration which Harvey founded; and his merits have been placed before you, with exhaustive completeness, by a long succession of able and eloquent orators. Even if the time and place were fitted for a disquisition on these topics, I could not hope to be able to add to the facts already known, or to place them before you in a new light. And, happily, this is not my function; I have to act simply as your remembrancer, to play the part of the herald who announces the familiar titles of a monarch on a state occasion.

Harvey's titles are three: he was the discoverer of the circulation of the blood; he wrote the "Exercitatio de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis;" he formulated anew the theory of epigenesis, and thereby founded the modern doctrine of development.

His first and, in general estimation, his greatest title to our honor has been challenged; but only to the confusion of the challengers. A century ago, your Fellow, Dr. Lawrence, in the excellent memoir prefaced to the college edition of Harvey's works, met the arguments of those who had, up to that time, attempted to dim his fame, with a solid refutation, which has never been answered, and to my mind remains unanswerable. In our own day, Dr. Willis has stated the facts of the case, and deduced the inevitable conclusion, with no less force and cogency. And, having taken some pains to get at the truth of the matter myself, I may state my clear conviction that Harvey stands almost alone among great scientific discoverers; not so much that, as Hobbes said, he lived to see the doctrine he propounded received into the body of universally-accepted truth, but because that doctrine was both absolutely original and absolutely new. I have yet to meet with a single particle of evidence to show that, before Harvey declared the fact that the blood is in constant circular motion, there was so much as a suspicion on the part of any of his predecessors or contemporaries that such is the case. Neither in Galen, nor in Servetus, nor in Realdus Columbus, nor in Cæsalpinus, is there a hint that a given portion of blood sent out from the left ventricle passes through the body and the lungs and returns to the place whence it started; yet this is the essence of Harvey's discovery.

Hence, when we hear of pompous inscriptions being put up in Spain to Michael Servetus, "the discoverer of the circulation," or in Italy to Cæsalpinus, "the discoverer of the circulation," it is well to recollect that churchyards have no monopoly of unhistorical inscriptions. Indeed, have we not ourselves, within easy walking-distance, that famous monument, the subject of Pope's scathing but just lines:

"And London's column, soaring to the skies

Like a tall bully, lifts its head and lies?"

Sir, I have no sympathy with chauvinism of any kind, but, surely, of all kinds that is the worst which obtrudes pitiful national jealousies and rivalries into the realm of science. We will not shame ourselves by permitting the fact of Harvey's English birth to enter into the consideration of his claims as a discoverer; but those claims once established beyond dispute, it is, I hope, something nobler and better than mere national vanity which brings us together to celebrate his birth; to take an honest pride that such a man came of our English race; and as, I hope, to feel the deep responsibility which is laid upon us to have a care that the stock which in the same hundred years bourgeoned out in a Harvey and a Newton, shall not have its capacity for producing like growths, in the present and in the future, starved by devotion to mere material interests, or stunted by ignorant outcries against scientific investigation.

The second title which I have claimed for Harvey is that of author of the "Exercitatio de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis." And that title is, happily, quite indisputable. But some may suppose that I have so far thrown myself into the spirit of my assumed office as to insert a superfluous appellation—a sort of "Defender of the Faith." However, this would be an error. Harvey might have discovered the circular course of the blood; he might have given sufficient evidence of his discovery; and yet he might have been quite incapable of writing that little essay of fifty pages which no physiologist of the present day can read without wonder and delight. For, not only is it a typical example of sound scientific method and of concise and clear statement; but, in addition to the evidence of the course of the blood through the body, it contains the first accurate analysis of the motions of the heart; the first clear conception of the mechanism of that organ as a pumping apparatus; the first application of quantitative considerations to a physiological problem; and the first deductive explanation of the phenomena of the pulse and of the uses of the valves of the veins. "Libellus aureus," Haller called it—and never was epithet more aptly bestowed.

Harvey's third title to honor is the authorship of the "Exercitationes de Generatione." In this treatise Harvey grapples with two of the most difficult problems of biology—the physiological problem of generation and the morphological problem of development. It was simply impossible that he should solve these problems, for they can be approached only through the microscope; and Harvey was dead before Hooke, Malpighi, Swammerdam, or Leeuwenhoek, the fathers of microscopy, began their work. He saw the circulation in shrimps "ope perspicillo" indeed—but the perspicillum was a mere hand-glass. Hence it is not wonderful that Harvey's theory of fecundation is altogether erroneous; and that he is no less mistaken respecting the nature of the parts of the embryo which first make their appearance and the mode of their formation.

Nevertheless, just as it is the fate of dullness to be blind to the significance of justly-observed facts, so is it the rare privilege of men of the highest genius to discern the true light among the ignes fatui of error. They know the truth, as Falstaff discerned the true prince among his pot companions, by instinct. Explain the matter how we will, it is an indubitable fact that, though Harvey's fundamental observations were either inadequate or erroneous, some of his most important general conclusions express the outcome of modern research.

For a whole century Harvey's successors, even though the illustrious Haller was among them, went wrong when Harvey was right; and though Caspar Wolff returned to Harvey's views and thereby laid the foundation of modern embryology, the definitive triumph of the doctrine of epigenesis is the result of labors which have been effected within the memory of living men.

Such appear to me to be the chief claims of Harvey to be held in everlasting honor among men of science. We know that they represent a mere fraction of what he did. But the violence of an unhappy time has robbed us of the rest. I should trespass unwarrantably on your time if I insisted on the applications of Harvey's discoveries to medicine and surgery in the presence of those whose daily avocations bear witness to them.

I have hitherto dwelt upon the claims to our honor of Harvey the philosopher; one word, in conclusion, concerning Harvey the man. There have been great men whose personality one would gladly forget: brilliant capacities besmirched with the stains of inordinate ambition, or vanity, or avarice; or soiled by worse vices; or men of one idea, unable to look beyond the circle of their own pursuits. But no such flaw as any of these defaces the fair fame of William Harvey. The most that tradition has to say against him is, that he was quick of temper and could say a sharp thing on occasion. I do not feel disposed to cast a stone against him on that ground; but rather, such being the case, to marvel at the astonishing, not only self-control, but sweetness, displayed in his two short controversial writings—the letters to Riolan; a man who really was nothing better than a tympanitic Philistine, and who would have been all the better for a few sharp incisions.

Moreover, in such a temperament, while the love of appreciation is keen, the sense of wrong at unjust and willful opposition is no less strong. But I do not recollect, in all Harvey's writings, an allusion to the magnitude of his own achievements, or an angry word against his assailants.

Ready to welcome honor if it came, but quite able to be content without it; caring little for anything but liberty to follow in peace his search into the ways of the unfathomable cause of things—"sive Deus, sive Natura Naturans, sive Anima Mundi appelletur"[1]—one fancies this man of the true Stoic stamp would have summed up his eighty years of good and evil in the line of the poet, which was the favorite aphorism of his great contemporary, Descartes:

"Bene qui latuit bene visit."

But he lived too well that the memory of his life should be allowed to fall into oblivion; and we may hope that recurring centennial anniversaries will find our successors still mindful of the root whence their ever-widening knowledge has sprung.—Nature.

  1. "Exercitationes de Generatione," Ex. 50.