William Harvey’s is and ever was a great story. His discovery of the circulation of the blood is generally, and appropriately, seen as one of the heroic triumphs of the English Renaissance. Harvey famously committed the sin of empiricism, and used the evidence thus acquired to overturn the mental autocracy of mere text and vanished authorities. As Thomas Wright points out in Circulation, his biography of Harvey, the implications of his subject’s new understanding – like those of Newton or Darwin – reached well beyond the rarified conversations of the philosophers into politics, culture and society.
Wright begins that story by tracing Harvey’s studious boyhood, his matriculation at Cambridge in 1593, and then his move to Padua, where he was given the essential polish needed to reach the top rung of the medical profession. Wright emphasises the conventional nature of much of Harvey’s training, but in