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Nathaniel Highmore

Born  1613
Died  1685

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English surgeon and anatomist, born February 6, 1613, Fordingbridge, Hampton; died March 21, 1685, Sherborne, Dorset.

Biography of Nathaniel Highmore

Nathaniel Highmore was born into a family of clergymen, doctors, lawyers, and one well-known painter, Joseph Highmore (1692-1780). He was the son of Reverend Nathaniel Highmore, who became rector of Purse Caundle, Dorset, when Nathanial was one year old.

Nathaniel Highmore was educated at Sherborne School and Oxford University. First at Queen's College, but from 1632 Trinity College. He graduated B.A. in 1635 and M.A. in 1638, and then proceeded to study medicine. In 1640 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Haydocke, a noted physician of Salisbury. There were no children.

When the Civil War began in 1642, Highmore was one of a group of scientists at Trinity College, Oxford, headed by George Bathurst (Bachelor of Divinity) and William Harvey (1578-1657), the physician to King Charles I, who were conducting experiments on embryonic development of the chick. This study led to friendship between Highmore and Harvey and an agreement between them to publish the conclusions derived from their joint experiments in embryology. Their works appeared within weeks of each other: Harvey's Exercitationes de generatione animalium and Highmore's The History of Generation

Highmore’s Generation contains the first reference in English to the use of microscope, which may well have helped him to report changes in the embryonic area of the egg at a day earlier than did Harvey. The book is also notable for its careful observations and illustrations of plants.

In 1643 Highmore received his M.D. at Oxford under the «Caroline Creations» whereby, by royal command, the university conferred degrees on those who had specially served the king’s cause at the battle of Edge Hill and after. It is not known why Highmore was so honoured, but one surmise is that he attended the young Prince Charles during a bout of measles at Reading in November 1642.

Fully qualified for practice, Highmore returned to Sherborne, where he practiced for forty years. His work was marked by real concern for his patients and a commonsense approach to medicine. Despite the demands of a busy practice he found time to keep in touch with scientific thought. There was an unfulfilled suggestion to elect him a fellow of the newly formed Royal Society, and he contributed articles on medicinal springs to the Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He never became a member.

Highmore’s life was full and well rounded. He was internationally famous as an anatomist, loved and esteemed as a physician, and also assumed a full share of civic duties. He became a justice of the peace and county treasurer for Dorset; in Sherborne he was active in church affairs, and served for many years on the governing body of the town’s historic almshouse and Sherborne School.

His most important scientific contribution, Corporis humani disquisitio anatomica was dedicated to William Harvey, and the first anatomical textbook to accept Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood; its frontispiece incorporates an allegorical drawing of this new theory. Although Highmore’s physiology reflects the still medieval thinking of his time, the book was accepted as a standard anatomical textbook for many years and brought the author immediate recognition in England and abroad.

Nathaniel Highmore is buried in Purse Caundle Church, Dorset.


  • Corporis humani disquisitio anatomica; in qua sanguinis circulationem in quavis corporis particula plurimis typis novis ac aenigmatum medicorum succincta dilucidatione ornatam prosecuutus est.
    Hagai-Comitis [The Hague], Ex Officina Samuelis Broun, Bibliopolae Anglici, 1651
    The first English work to accept Harvey's ideas on the circulation.
  • The history of generation. Examining the several opinions of divers authors, especially that of Sir Kenelm Digby, in his discourse of bodies : with a general relation of the manner of generation, as well in plants as animals : with some figures delineating the first originals of some creatures ... : to which is joyned, A discourse of the cure of wounds by sympathy, or without any real applycation of medicines to the part affected, but especially by that powder, known chiefly by the name of Sir Gilbert Talbots powder.
    London, printed by R. N. for John Martin, 1651.
    Dedicated to Robert Boyle (1626-1691).
    Highmore's account of the development of the chick is the first embryological study based on microscopical examination, predating Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) by more than twenty years. It was published within weeks of William Harvey's (1578-1657) book. Harvey and Highmore had collaborated on embryological research at Oxford since the 1640's.
    Referring to Sir Kenelm Digby, 1903-1665, generally considered a charlatan, and Gilbert Talbot. Talbot is probably the son of the Earl of Shrewsbury. He was the father of the Countess of Kent, known for The Countess of Kent's Powder, "good against all malignant and pestilent Diseases: French Pox, Small Pox, Measles and Plague".
  • Exercitationes duae, quarum prior de passione hysterica: altere de affectione hypochondriaca. Oxford 1660.
    In this work, Highmore concluded that hysteria was caused by a congestion of the blood in the heart and lungs. He was soon corrected, however, by Thomas Willis (1621-1675) who correctly surmised that it was a nervous disorder.
  • Discourse of the Cure of Wounds by Sympathy.
    1651. Printed with History of Generation.
  • Some considerations relating to D. Witties Defence of Scarborough Spaw.
    Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1669, 4, no 56: 1128-1131.
  • Kenelm Digby:
    Discours sur la poudre de sympathie. Paris, 1659.
  • W. Harvey:
    Exercitationes de de generatione animalium; quibus accedunct quaedam de partu; de membranis ac humoribus, uteri; et de conceptione.
    London, 1651; Amsterdam, Elzevier, 1651.
  • Marcello Malpighi:
    De ovo incubato obsevationes. Londini, J. Martyn, 1673.
    First accurate description, from the microscopical point of view, of the chick embryo. Biographical:
  • Alumni Oxonienses.
    The members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1886. Their parentage, birthplace, and year of birth, with a record of their degrees. Compiled by J. Foster.
    8 volumes (covers 1500-1886). Oxford, 1887-1892. Volume 2, page 708.
  • A.T.H. Robb-Smith:
    Harvey at Oxford. Oxford Medical School Gazette, 1957, 9: 70-76.
  • J. Elise Gordon:
    The Highmore family of Dorset.
    Journal of the Sherborne History Society, 1966, 3: 2 ff.
  • J. Elise Gordon:
    Nathaniel Highmore, Physician and Anatomist, 1614-1685.
    The Practitioner, 1966, 196: 851-857.
  • J. Elise Gordon:
    Nathaniel Highmore. Midwife and Health Visitor. 1969, 5: 364 ff.
  • J. Elise Gordon:
    Nathaniel Highmore. In: Charles Coulston Gillispie, editor in chief: Dictionary of Scientific Biographies. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York, 1970.
  • Robert G. Frank:
    Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists: A Study of Scientific Ideas.
    Berkeley, 1980, pp. 97-101.

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