Resting in Peace | Letters | Chicago Reader

Resting in Peace 

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To the Chicago Reader:

Your issue dated Friday, March 8, contains an interesting letter ("Your Beatin' Heart") signed by Hank Oettinger, commenting upon the assignment to William Harvey of credit for discovering the circulation of the blood. Mr. Oettinger challenges this attribution, which had been made by Cecil Adams (but not by him alone!). Mr. Oettinger cites a passage from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (first performed in 1599; Harvey's views were first presented in public in 1616), in which Brutus speaks of "the ruddy drops / That visit my sad heart," and argues that (a) "undoubtedly "visit' was used in the sense "to make frequent or regular visits"' and (b) this shows that Shakespeare knew of the circulation of the blood in 1599. He asks, "Could Harvey have seen [Shakespeare's] play at the Globe?"

A nuttier theory is possible. I learn from the article on Harvey in the great 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that Harvey numbered among his patients Francis Bacon; so an upholder of the theory that Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays might be led to the view that Bacon discovered the circulation of the blood and taught it to Harvey--or even that, tired of the writing of plays, he induced his stalking-horse Shakespeare to retire to the country (where indeed the latter died in 1616) and began now to write medical lectures and books, with Harvey as his new front man.

However, Mr. Oettinger has made a mistake: he has misunderstood what it is that Harvey is said--on pretty good evidence--to have discovered. Let me quote from the Britannica article I have mentioned (written by Philip Henry Pye-Smith, M.D., F.R.S.): "First, . . . , then, the physicians of the time of Thomas Linacre"--whose dates are c. 1460-1524--"knew that the blood is not stagnant in the body. So did Shakespeare and Homer, and every village barber who breathed a vein. Plato even uses the expression the blood is carried round with vehemence towards all the limbs [Pye-Smith quotes this in Greek; he does not give the place where those exact words occur in Plato, and I have not found it]. But no one had a conception of a continuous stream returning to its source (a circulation in the true sense of the word). . . . "

Not to continue at length with Pye-Smith's fairly detailed discussion, the main points that were new in Harvey's account--which he based upon a meticulous series of observations and experiments--are these: (1) that the blood in the arteries and the blood in the veins is (over the course of time) the same blood; (2) that the entire course of the blood is indeed a circulation, from the left ventricle of the heart through the arteries, then to the veins back to the right auricle of the heart, through the right ventricle, thence to the lungs and back again to the left auricle of the heart, into the left ventricle and so to repeat; and (3) that the tissues of the heart are muscle, and the heart serves as a pump that is the engine of this whole process. (Descartes, for example, who agreed with points (1) and (2) and regarded them as a great discovery, rejected (3); he gave what he claimed to be a conclusive demonstrative argument for an altogether different role of the heart in this process.) Before Harvey, it had been widely supposed that one kind of blood is manufactured by the liver, flows to the right ventricle of the heart--where it is somehow mixed with appropriate other ingredients ("spirits")--then to the lungs, and to the body in general through the veins; and that a second kind of blood flows from the liver to the left ventricle, then to the lungs, then to the body in general through the arteries; both kinds being (largely) consumed in the parts of the body they ultimately reach.

There was a gap in Harvey's observations: he did not succeed in finding the actual path by which the blood passes from arteries to veins. This path--through the capillaries--was discovered in 1661 by Malpighi, with the help of the microscope, then only recently invented (and so not available to Harvey).

To return to Shakespeare, then, two points need to be made about Mr. Oettinger's reading of him. First, it is really not so clear that "visit" in the quoted passage means "regularly visit and revisit." The "ruddy drops" could quite well be supposed to "visit" the heart--it was known that blood flows to the heart (cf. above)--just once. Second, even if one supposes that there is "revisitation," this could occur through a kind of oscillation, or a "wandering" of the blood of each kind, with some of it occasionally "visiting" the heart for, as it were, refreshment.

To quote Dr. Pye-Smith once more, he remarks that if, before Harvey, the term circulatio was used of the blood (as it was, he tells us, by Caesalpinus), "it was as vaguely as the French policeman cries "Circulez"'--that is: "Circulate!"; in other words, "Get a move on!"

(How comes it that Cecil Adams, who knows everything, didn't reply to Mr. Oettinger's criticism? Was his lackey Ed not on the ball?)

Howard Stein

Department of Philosophy

University of Chicago

Cecil Adams replies:

Cecil did not reply to Mr. Oettinger's criticism because neither he nor his lackey Ed saw it prior to publication, the copy we were sent apparently having gotten lost in transit. No problem, though--I figure this was one question you folks at the University of Chicago were qualified to handle on your own.


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