It seems to have taken me ages to finish this book, but that's not because I haven't been enjoying it. You just can't rattle through non-fiction in the same way as a novel, can you? Unfortunately I'm not the kind of reader who can dip in and out of a non-fiction book while having some fiction on the go at the same time. While on one hand I am quite interested in the history of medicine, on the other hand I don't tend to read many history books at all as I can find them quite dry. But I was keen to read Circulation as it won this year's Wellcome Trust Book Prize and luckily I found it both informative and entertaining.
William Harvey was a doctor who, in 1628, published his theory of circulation detailing the workings of the heart and vascular system, much as we know them today. The cover of the book describes this as a 'revolutionary idea' which seems maybe a little far-fetched until you consider the state that the world of medicine was in at that time. Harvey's idea was more than just clever and even more than merely unconventional - it went against ideas that had been almost universally accepted as gospel truth for centuries, since the teachings of Galen in Roman times. Think about the kind of confidence (arrogance?) and innovation that it would take to challenge such widespread scientific beliefs and you will begin to realise that Harvey was the kind of strong and curious character that is really quite interesting to read about.
In the preface, Thomas Wright explains that many personal manuscripts of Harvey's and papers detailing his research have been destroyed over the centuries, victims of political unrest during the English Civil War and also in the Great Fire of London. I worried initially that this wouldn't bode very well for the rest of the book, but Wright does a great job of filling in the blanks to paint a lively portrait of society as a whole in Renaissance-era England. It's about so much more than Harvey himself. I really enjoyed reading about the gory details of Harvey's education in anatomy at a time when medical students were notorious for fighting in the streets and terrorising the town (anyone who has ever stumbled across a medical student pub crawl during Fresher's week might argue that little has changed). It was equally interesting to learn about his studies in natural philosophy and how some of his first supporters included the likes of Descartes. Wright also covers the attitudes of society at that time to issues that still prove controversial today, such as vivisection.
I felt that this was quite an objective account of Harvey that by no means views him through rose-tinted glasses. As someone who doesn't read many memoirs I was struck by the way Wright not only provides a running commentary of a person's life, but places it firmly in context by vividly illustrating the world they lived in.