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Library Spotlight: Thomas Willis

Written by Ken Smith, Cathedral volunteer   Thomas Willis – the father of Neurology?

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Library Spotlight: Thomas Willis

Posted By : Emily Naish Tuesday 12th September 2017

Written by Ken Smith, Cathedral volunteer


Thomas Willis – the father of Neurology?

One of the many books in the Cathedral library that has caught my eye is a relatively slim folio entitled “Pharmaceutice Rationalis” or an “Exercitation of the Operation of Medicines in Humane Bodies” by Thomas Willis. I was drawn to the book partly because it was in English (my Latin is rudimentary) and also because I have always been fascinated by early scientific/medical texts.


Willis was born in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire in 1621. He attended Oxford University graduating MA in 1642. He then went on to study further, graduating B.Med in 1646. His Royalist sympathies meant he was barred from official appointments under the Commonwealth and he spent the years 1646-60 in Oxford and district undertaking medical and chemical research with like –minded young men in the “Experimental Philosophical club”. Assisted by Christopher Wren, amongst others, he carried out dissections on the bodies of executed criminals in the back-rooms of houses and inns. Famously, on one occasion, the body they received – that of a young servant girl hanged for the infanticide of her new-born child – was heard to gag when the coffin was opened and Willis and his companions were able to bring her back to life.


With the Restoration in 1660, his fortunes improved and he was appointed Savilian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford. During his years of experimentation, Willis had developed theories of his own which he incorporated together with traditional Aristotelian ideas in his lectures. He believed firmly that anatomy was the key to an understanding of the soul stating “…the study of anatomy can unlock the secret places of Man’s Mind and look into the living, breathing chapel of the Deity”.


By the second half of the 17th century, the belief of Aristotle that the heart was the prime mover of the body was being superseded by a greater understanding of the importance of the brain. Willis tried to correlate the knowledge of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry with clinical findings in brain structure and function. He coined the term “neurologie” and postulated that different parts of the brain dealt with sensory information, imagination and memory. He discovered the ring of arteries later known as the “ring of Willis” by use of dye injections and together with Wren developed better ways to preserve dissected brains.


However in spite of his discoveries, his views were coloured by his life and times. He believed that humanity possessed a three-component soul comprising a “vital” soul emanating from the blood, together with a “sensitive” soul derived from mixing the “vital“ soul with “animal spirits” and over all, an immaterial “immortal” soul  which governed the others. This perhaps reflects his wish for an “ordered” state of common people ruled by a Monarch all under the watchful eye of the Church.


For the last part of his life, Willis worked as a successful doctor in London. During this time he refined his ideas and techniques and these are recorded in the “Pharmaceutice Rationalis”. For example he believed coffee to be a useful drug saying “..I do frequently prescribe this drink sooner than anything else….and am wont to send the sick to the coffee houses sooner than to the Apothecaries shop”. His remedy for scurvy appears to predate that of Lind in the 18th century: “…put the leaves of scurvy grass and Brooklime (each a half handful) plus orange rinds cut small, make an infusion, warm and close-stopped for six hours; then strain it ready for use”.


Willis died, probably of pneumonia, in the winter of 1675. His epitaph might be a quote from one of his books : ”….even the most perverse atheist, having studied the brain, must acknowledge God  or reject not only religion but also reason.”


Further images from Salisbury Cathedral Library's copy of Thomas Willis' Pharmaceutice Rationalis can be found here.