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William Harvey and air pollution
  1. R L Maynard
  1. Department of Health, Skipton House, Elephant and Castle, London SE1 6LH, UK; robert.maynard{at}doh.gsi.gov.uk

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    Thomas Parr died, on 14 November 1635, at what was recorded as the advanced age of 152 years and 9 months. A postmortem examination was performed and a record made by William Harvey. A translation by Alan Muirhead of Harvey’s account is included in the Everyman edition of De Motu Cordis.1 Parr seemed remarkably well preserved, and when considering the cause of death, Harvey identified air pollution as a possible contributory factor. His words are worth reading:

    “It was consistent to attribute the cause of death to the sudden adoption of a mode of living unnatural to him. [Parr had been brought to London not long before he died by Lord Arundel.] Especially did he suffer harm from the change of air, for all his life he had enjoyed absolutely clean, rarefied, coolish, and circulating air, and therefore his diaphragm and lungs could be inflated and deflated and refreshed more freely. But life in London in particular lacks this advantage—the more so because it is full of the filth of men, animals, sewers, and other forms of squalor, in addition to which there is the not inconsiderable grime from the smoke of sulphurous coal constantly used as fuel for fires. The air in London therefore is always heavy, and in autumn particularly so, especially to a man coming from the sunny and healthy districts of Shropshire, and it could not but be particularly harmful to one who was now an enfeebled old man.”

    Harvey went on to point to the possible adverse effects of changing from a simple diet to a rich one. Harvey’s observation on the possible effects of air pollution are interesting in that they antedate Evelyn’s much better known analysis by 26 years. In retrospect we can see that Harvey identified the effects of short term exposure to high levels of air pollution on a vulnerable person.

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