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The Diary of William Harvey. Jean Hamburger (trans. by Barbara Wright). Rutgers Univ. Press (1992). ISBN 0-8135-1826-1. $14.95 paper.
William Harvey, renowned for his landmark work on the circulation of the blood, never wrote a diary. But this fictional reconstruction is both delightful and informative. Jean Hamburger has vividly imagined how an older Harvey might have reflected on his life, his discoveries, the political torment of Cromwell's England, and the nature of science, knowledge and values. Through Harvey's own experience, we also become acquainted with many of the times' most prestigious figures and learn as much about Europe in the early 1600s as we do about Harvey himself.
In a narrow biological context, we learn about persons who objected to Harvey's ideas on circulation, as well as those who embraced them. We are also introduced to Harvey's work on generation, or development--perhaps his more fundamental interest. He also tells us about other medical and scientific ventures, including a famous case where he was asked to investigate allegations of witchcraft.
The diary has all the flavor a memoir and so also conveys the details of the historical setting. We hear a great deal about King Charles, whom Harvey served as personal physician and whose throne and very life are endangered by Parliament and their armies. Harvey also introduces us to Mersenne and Gassendi in Paris, to the semi-mystical Joannes Marcus Marci (dubbed the "Hippocrates of Prague"), and to his good friend, Thomas Hobbes (whose Leviathan was probably deeply influenced by Harvey's own physiological ideas).
Beneath the text, one can perhaps sense a tone of 20th century existentialism and an unqualified positivism about the virtues of science--views that one could attribute to Harvey only speculatively. Harvey's notion about the link between the circulation of the body as a microcosm and the solar system, with its alchemical overtones, for example, is completely absent. But at the same time, we are given an intimate and distinctive perspective: a history with personality. It is refreshing (and in character) to hear Harvey's frank disdain of Francis Bacon and Descartes, for example, or his indifference to William Shakespeare.
The diary is fictional, but endnotes carefully document sources and identify imaginative excursions. The book may be especially valuable for history teachers who want an "insider's" view of early 17th-century culture and the status of science within it. It is equally valuable for role-playing, with numerous occasions for name-dropping and personal commentary. "Men are mortal," Harvey reflects at one point, "and we may not deny death. But we may, if we are sufficiently skilled, reject disease and suffering: such a rejection represents the greatness of medicine, and perhaps of man" (p.58). Such a vivid mixture of attitudes about rigorous science and human compassion is typical of the diary and exemplifies perhaps its central value.
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