A Not So Brief History of High Blood Pressure

Eli Ben-Yehuda

Written by Eli Ben-Yehuda

On May 20, 2018
A not so Brief History of High Blood Pressure

Before delving into High Blood Pressure I thought it would be interesting to look at the history behind the discovery and treatment of it. There is an extensive history but I chose to begin in the 16th century. William Harvey, born in Kent England April 1, 1578, was the first physician to accurately describe the circulation of blood through the human body. Prior to him physicians felt that the lungs were responsible for the circulation of blood.

Harvey studied medicine at the Univerisita of Padua in Italy. Studying under the renowned surgeon Hieronymus Fabricius, Harvey became fascinated with anatomy and physiology like his teacher. Fabricius had discovered that the veins in the body were comprised of one way check valves. Allowing blood flow not to back up, but to continue forward. Yet it was Harvey who took the foundation of Fabricius’ teaching, and went on to solve the riddle of what part the valves played in the circulation of blood through the body.

In his book “De motu cordis” he explained how the heart was the organ that was responsible for blood flow in all beings, animal and human.

A century and a half later, comes Reverend Stephen Hales a graduate of Cambridge University, and a brilliant experimental scientist. In 1733 Hale found that by inserting a tube into a vein he could determine the blood pressure. He stated, “ Since animal fluids move by hydraulic and hydrostatic laws, the likeliest ways therefore to succeed in our inquiries into the nature of their motions, is by adapting our experiments to those laws.” You should read the fascinating account of the experiment he did with his horse.

Thomas Young one of the translators of the Rosetta Stone, was the first to describe hypertension as a disease. This was presented in the Croonian Lectures 1808 where he lectured on the function of the heart and arteries. He claimed to have measured the percent fall in systolic and diastolic blood pressure in dogs from the aorta to the mesenteric arteries of 200-mmm diameter. The decrement averaged 16 mm Hg. Approximately 150 years later, modern science remeasured the pressure drop using modern dynamic equipment and found an average pressure drop of 17% systolic and 12% diastolic from aorta to mesenteric arteries of 200~pm diameter-a remarkable agreement, considering the methods used in Young’s time.

But blood pressure readings really came into its own with the invention of the device called a sphygmomanometer by Scipione Riva-Rocci in 1896. For the first time blood pressures could be taken in a clinical setting. In nursing school when we were learning how to take a blood pressure reading, the old fashioned way, we were introduced to “Korotkoff Sounds”. These are the swishing sounds that can be heard in the artery with a stethoscope when the blood pressure cuff is deflated.

Essential Hypertension was used to describe hypertension with no evident cause by Eberhard Frank in 1911, while malignant hypertension, a term used to describe severe hypertension which eventually resulted in death, was first used by The Mayo Clinic in 1928.

In 1931, John Hay, Professor of Medicine at liverpool University, wrote that “There is some truth in the saying that “The greatest danger to a man with a high blood pressure lies in its discovery, because then some fool is certain to try and reduce it.”

There are so many fascinating reads on the development of the science behind high blood pressure but the time and space it would take me would fill a book. You are welcome to read more through the resources used for this article

Resources used for this article on the history of high blood pressure:
  • Historical Trends and Milestones in Hypertension Research
  • Timeline of History of Hypertension Treatment
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