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"—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:
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.
- "Exercitationes de Generatione," Ex. 50.