Exercitationes de generatione animalium. Quibus accedunt quaedum de partu: de membranis ac humoribus uteri: & de conceptione.

London: William Dugard, for Octavian Pulleyn, 1651.

John Evelyn’s copy, and possibly the unique copy containing the portrait of Harvey, of the first edition of “the most important book on [embryology] to appear during the seventeenth century” (Garrison-Morton). In this work, “he rejected the prevailing doctrine of the preformation of the fetus, and advanced the theory, radical for its time, of epigenesis, that all living beings derive from the ovum ‘by the gradual building up and aggregation of its parts’. Regarding Harvey’s theory of epigenesis, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95) claimed this should “give him an even greater claim to the veneration of posterity than his better known discovery of the circulation of the blood” (Keynes, Bibliography, p. 47). Harvey reported a wealth of observations on many aspects of reproduction in a wide variety of species. As representatives of vivipara, his attention was chiefly devoted to the deer, while that for ovipara was the domestic fowl. For Harvey, all life develops from the egg. This is expressed on the frontispiece which depicts the supreme Roman god Jupiter [Jove] opening a large egg, inscribed with the fundamental dictum of embryology, ex (upper half of egg shell) ovo omnia (lower half of egg shell), which translates as, ‘from the egg everything,’ and from which the liberated animals and insects fly … An opponent of the theory of spontaneous generation, Harvey speculated that humans and other mammals must reproduce through the joining of an egg and sperm. No other theory was credible. By positing and demonstrating for viviparous animals the same mechanism of reproduction as that observed in oviparous animals, he thus initiated the search for the mammalian ovum” (Longo & Reynolds, p. 272). Harvey was persuaded to publish this work by his colleague Dr. George Ent, who wrote the preface addressed to the College of Physicians and saw the book through the press. “Ent reports in his dedication the conversations with Harvey in which he secured his consent to publication, and remarks at the end that ‘as our author writes a hand which no one without practice can easily read, I have taken some pains to prevent the printer committing any very grave blunders through this’” (Keynes, Bibliography, p. 46). The text comprises seventy-two ‘Exercises’ and extended chapters on parturition, the uterus, and conception. In Exercise 51 he formulates the theory of epigenesis, and his chapter ‘De partu’ is the first published essay on midwifery by an Englishman. The importance of Harvey’s text was immediately recognized, and it was reprinted three times in the year of its issue. The scarce portrait of Harvey inserted in the Evelyn copy was in fact intended to be published in this edition of De generatione animalium, as a letter to Evelyn from Dr. Jasper Needham quoted by Keynes (Life, p. 333) demonstrates: ‘Dr. Harvey’s picture is etcht by a friend of mine and should have been added to his work, but that resolution altered: however I'll send you a proof with your book that you may bind it up with his book De Generatione. I'm sure ’tis exactly like him, for I saw him sit for it.’ Keynes refers to the present copy (then in Christ Church College, Oxford) for the portrait.

Provenance: 1. John Evelyn (1620-1706), bound for him and with press-marks in his hand, N3 (deleted) and L.27. Also on the recto of A4 is a note to the binder in the hand of Evelyn's calligrapher and amanuensis, Richard Horae, Veau Harveius de Generatione. Descended through: 2. The Evelyn family library, with further press-mark G4.7, subsequently housed in Christ Church College, Oxford, sold by the Evelyn trustees in Christie’s London rooms, 1 December 1977, lot 713, £3800 = $7044, to Zeitlin & Ver Brugge. 3. Haven O’More (bookplate, sale Garden Ltd., Sotheby's New York, 10 November 1989, lot 115, $15,400).

“Harvey had for a great number of years experimented and recorded his observations on the development of the chick embryo and of other animals. There are many references to the subject in his writings on the heart and circulation of the blood … It is evident from references in the sixth Exercise of this work that this interest in the subject of generation had been initiated by his association with the great Fabricius when he was at Padua, 1598-1602” (Keynes, Bibliography, p. 46). “While Harvey’s general biological interests developed in Padua, there is no adequate evidence that he played an active part in Fabricius’s embryological studies. Nevertheless, he consciously based his own studies on Aristotle and Fabricius, the latter’s De formation ovi et pulli of 1621 being particularly important. Thus, it is probable that Harvey’s serious investigations of the embryology of the chick, which formed the basis of De generatione, began shortly after he had read Fabricius’s book.

“Evidence from De generatione suggests that Harvey was actively engaged in collecting materials relating to generation between 1625 and 1637. De motu cordis indicates that, by 1628, he had recognized the important theoretical implications of studies on generation and was already engaged on a major treatise on this subject.

“First, he was determined to resolve the contradictions in the various descriptions of the chick embryology. This in turn provided evidence for use in the wider problem of the nature of sexual generation throughout the animal kingdom. The technical and theoretical difficulties involved in this research would cause Harvey to progress slowly. However, it is quite possible that [Sir Thomas] Browne and [Sir Kenelm] Digby saw major sections of the work in about 1638 and this may have been the stimulus to their own embryological investigations.

“After 1638, Harvey probably continued modifying his work and compiling additional material relating to this inexhaustible subject. The study of insects and other invertebrates would have been a particularly demanding study. However, soon the continuity of his labour was interrupted, with the outbreak of the civil war in 1642. He vacated his Whitehall chambers; these were pillaged and many valuable manuscripts were lost. The loss of De insectis would have been a particularly severe blow to his studies on generation, for Harvey fully recognized the crucial importance of including invertebrates within the scope of his biological theories.

“Harvey’s fortunes now depended on the fate of the King. Being forced to retire from London, he settled in Oxford, where, between 1642 and 1646, he was able to resume his embryological studies, having the assistance of George Bathurst and Sir Charles Scarburgh. However, in 1646, the King’s failure to hold Oxford resulted in Harvey retiring from the royal service. He returned to London and, with the stability produced by the collapse of the royal cause, he was able to return to his studies. Thus, it is not surprising that the publication of De generatione was intimated in 1648 and again in 1649.

“It is quite possible that Harvey’s final hesitations about publication were due to a desire to consolidate the principles announced in this ambitious work. The loss of many of his manuscripts was also a factor which would delay completion of De generatione, for it destroyed irrevocably his plan for a complete systematic account of biology and medicine. He was too old and sick to regain the territory lost by the folly of war. Eventually, George Ent counteracted Harvey’s pessimism and persuaded him to prepare the work for publication in the early months of 1651” (Webster, pp. 268-270).

“The finished book is a handsome quarto of over 300 pages; it has an allegorical frontispiece … [which] provides a rather undistinguished figure of Jove seated on a pedestal with his eagle beside him … The first intention was to add to the interest of Harvey’s book by including a portrait of the author. He did in fact give sittings to an artist and an etching was made, but in the end this was not used. A few examples of the print have survived, and these present an image of an aged and unhappy-looking man. Not unnaturally this was not regarded with favour by Dr. Ent, or by the author’s family, and it was set aside …

“Harvey’s book consists of seventy-two ‘Exercises’, or chapters, preceded by a long philosophical introduction discussing Aristotle’s and Galen’s views concerning generation, his own methods of attacking the problem, and how knowledge in general, and of generation in particular, may be acquired. The first thirteen Exercises describe the comparative anatomy of the reproductive organs of a number of animals, with an account of the physiology of reproduction. The twelfth to the twenty-fifth describe the day-to-day development of the chick in the egg. Exercises 26 to 62 discuss at length various theories and problems of generation. Some of the conclusions reached by Aristotle and Galen Harvey thought were erroneous and hasty, for ‘like phantoms of darkness they suddenly vanish before the light of anatomical enquiry.’ He adumbrated his newer and better method of ascertaining the truth by ocular investigation, not underestimating the labour involved, but pointing out the sweet compensation provided by the pleasure of discovery. The introduction is greatly lengthened by the discussion of how knowledge is acquired, beginning with Aristotle’s insistence that all knowledge is gained primarily through the senses …

“The sixty-second Exercise, headed ‘That an egg is the Common Original of all Animals,’ forms a loose link between Harvey’s observations on hen’s eggs and those on generation in viviparous animals and other classes. Towards the close of the chapter Harvey wrote: ‘But hereafter when we treat of the Generation of Insects, and of Spontaneous Productions, we shall discover how each of them are either differenced among themselves, or else do agree.’ This must have been written before the loss of his notes on insects in 1642, the passage being overlooked when the decision was made to print the book in spite of this serious omission. The sixty-third Exercise contains general remarks ‘Of the Generation of Viviparous Animals’; the sixty-fourth to the seventy-second describe generation as seen in hinds and does. The last part of the book is almost a separate treatise on generation and obstetrics in mankind, and is not divided into Exercises” (Keynes, Life, pp. 333-336).

“In the early 1630s, Harvey had studied the herds of red and fallow deer that were kept in the parks of King Charles I. He dissected hinds that had recently mated, and to his surprise found nothing in the uterus: no semen, no menstrual blood, and most surprising of all, no egg. Studies of dogs and rabbits gave the same result. Harvey summed up his findings succinctly: ‘Nothing at all can be found in the uterus after copulation for the space of several days.’ This led him to conclude that ‘the foetus does not arise either from the male or the female sperm emitted in coitus, nor from both of them mixed together, as the physicians think, nor from menstrual blood as being the substance, as Aristotle thought, and that something of the conception is not necessarily made immediately after coitus.’ Harvey’s failure to find semen or eggs after copulation led him to believe that both Galen’s and Aristotle’s views were wrong: whatever the male and female contributions might be, there was no physical contact between them. Furthermore, however this indirect effect worked, it did not immediately lead to the appearance of an egg.

“Harvey groped with analogies to explain his findings, suggesting that semen had its effect through some immaterial ‘spirit’ or ‘contagion’, or perhaps like an odour, or a spark, or a bolt of lightning, or even a kind of magnetic effect. His vague conclusions were perfectly in keeping with his findings (no semen was observable in the uterus) and with contemporary knowledge about the apparently non-material transmission of disease. As to what the woman’s contribution might be, Harvey was at a loss. He dismissed Galen’s idea that there was a female ‘semen’ that was produced at orgasm, and in particular he opposed the suggestion that it involved female ‘ejaculation’: not all women ‘ejaculate’, he pointed out; those who do not can still both reach orgasm and be fertile; and he argued that the fluid involved has ‘a serous and watery consistency, like urine’, which he thought meant it was too thin to play the role of semen.

“Harvey made a spectacular mistake when he argued that the female ‘testicles’ (what we call ovaries) played no role in female generation. His dissection of female deer had shown no changes in the size or shape of the ‘testicles’ as the mating season progressed, so he had to conclude that ‘The so-called testicles, like things utterly unconcerned in generation, neither swell up nor vary in any wise from their wonted constitution either before or after coitus, nor gave any indication of being of any use either for coitus or for generation.’ This fitted in with the widespread assumption that the female ‘testicles’ were like male nipples – vestigial, functionless organs …

“Faced with this evidence – or, rather, lack of it – Harvey found himself driven into a corner. In the final section of his book, he speculated about what he called the ‘dark business’ of conception. Struck by his inability to find any physical trace of the future embryo in his dissected deer, nor any sign of semen, Harvey grappled with the implications. ‘There is nothing which can be perceived in the uterus after coitus, and yet it is a necessity that something must be there to render the female fertile.’ His conclusion, which he clearly felt uncomfortable with, was the only one his evidence supported: ‘What imagination and appetite are to the brain,’ he wrote, ‘the same thing, or at least something analogous to it, is awakened in the uterus by coitus and from this proceeds the generation or procreation of the egg.’ In other words, the appearance of the egg was the product of a mysterious force: the power of the womb” (Cobb, pp. 27-29).

“As one contemplates these singular narrations and other similar statements, one is reminded that even great men cannot escape from all the things that shackle common men … for Aristotle and Arantius had held that the fetusus of mammals were expelled by the contraction of the uterus, the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. One scarcely cannot escape the conclusion that in this instance at least if not also in others, Harvey was misled by an opinion derived from a study of the chick and of insects” (Meyer, p. 130).

“We have few details of the techniques employed by Harvey in his researches on generation. His failures have been attributed to the limitations of the means at his disposal, particularly to lack of any form of microscope for observation of the initial stages of the development of the embryo in the hen’s egg and for the identification of the mammalian ovum and spermatozoon. The first use of a simple lens in embryology is attributed to Riolan the younger, Harvey’s contemporary and correspondent … That Harvey used a simple lens is evident from his references to the employment of a perspicilium, a variation of Riolan’s conspicilium … With regard to Harvey’s failure to identify the mammalian ovum, it must be remembered that, although blood corpuscles and spermatozoa were first seen with the help of a simple lens, the ovum was not in fact identified (by von Baer) until 1827” (Keynes, Life, pp. 339-342).

In spite of its length and difficulty (and the lack of diagrams), De generatione was an immediate bestseller, with four separate Latin editions appearing in 1651 (two in England, two in the Netherlands), followed by an English translation two years later.

The present copy was bound for John Evelyn, who was at the centre of the intellectual, social, political and ecclesiastical world of his day. Born into a substantial Surrey landowning family whose fortunes were founded in gunpowder manufacture, Evelyn came of age just as the Civil War began ‘in a conjunction of the greatest and most prodigious hazards that ever the youth of England saw’. To escape the disturbances, he embarked on a prolonged and formative period of travel in Italy and France. He visited the medical faculty of the University of Padua, where Harvey had studied, and in the Veneto he renewed his acquaintance with the famous art collector Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel. He finally came to rest in Paris in 1647 where he married the daughter of the English Resident, Sir Richard Browne, whose house was a centre for the exiled royalist community. This period abroad stimulated Evelyn’s wide-ranging intellectual interests. He embarked on an intensive programme of study, of which the evidence remains in his elaborate series of commonplace books, and began to build up his impressive private library: as he afterwards wrote, he always looked on a library ‘with the reverence of a temple’. By the time he returned to England in 1652 to take up residence at a house belonging to his wife’s family, Sayes Court at Deptford, he had made himself prodigiously learned, not only in classical literature but also in scientific and technical matters. He soon established himself as one of the foremost virtuosi of his day. The Restoration of Charles II in 1660 brought Evelyn a long wished-for opportunity to engage in public affairs. He became a founder member of the Royal Society. The King sought his company and commissioned him to write. But Evelyn never found ‘the fruitless, vicious and empty conversations’ of the Restoration Court congenial. Samuel Pepys wrote of this many-faceted man, ‘a most excellent person he is, and must be allowed a little for conceitedness; but he may well be so, being a man so much above others’.

It seems that Evelyn did not know Harvey personally, but it is likely that Evelyn learned something of him from the Earl of Arundel, whom Harvey had accompanied on his continental trip in 1636. Evelyn must have seen Harvey’s stemma in the University of Padua’s arcade during his visit to Italy.

Garrison-Morton 467; Keynes, A Bibliography of the Writings of William Harvey, M.D. 34; Osler 710; Waller 4118; Wing H1091. Cobb, Generation, 2006. Keynes, The Life of William Harvey, 1966. Longo & Reynolds, Wombs with a View, 2016. Meyer, An analysis of the De generatione animalium of William Harvey, 1936. Webster, ‘Harvey’s ‘De Generatione’: Its Origins and Relevance to the Theory of Circulation,’ The British Journal for the History of Science 3 (1967), pp. 262-274.

4to (223 x 158 mm), pp. [xxviii], 301, [1], with etched portrait of Harvey probably by Richard Gaywood, engraved allegorical title-page, woodcut ornamental initials and headpieces (some light browning, T3 with marginal paper flaw, 2G4 with tiny marginal hole). Contemporary Parisian mottled calf for John Evelyn, the covers panelled in gilt with his cipher, all edges gilt, spine gilt in compartments with red morocco label (rubbed, some flaking and loss of gilt due to action of the mottling acid, minor restoration). Brown half-morocco folding-case gilt, by Middleton.

Item #4785

Price: $49,500.00

See all items in Chemistry, Medicine, Biology
See all items by