Thomas Willis
Thomas Willis was an English
English people
The English are a nation and ethnic group native to England, who speak English. The English identity is of early mediaeval origin, when they were known in Old English as the Anglecynn. England is now a country of the United Kingdom, and the majority of English people in England are British Citizens...

 doctor who played an important part in the history of anatomy
Anatomy is a branch of biology and medicine that is the consideration of the structure of living things. It is a general term that includes human anatomy, animal anatomy , and plant anatomy...

, neurology
Neurology is a medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Specifically, it deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of disease involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue,...

 and psychiatry
Psychiatry is the medical specialty devoted to the study and treatment of mental disorders. These mental disorders include various affective, behavioural, cognitive and perceptual abnormalities...

. He was a founding member of the Royal Society
Royal Society
The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, known simply as the Royal Society, is a learned society for science, and is possibly the oldest such society in existence. Founded in November 1660, it was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II as the "Royal Society of London"...



Willis was born on his parents' farm in Great Bedwyn
Great Bedwyn
Great Bedwyn is a village and civil parish in the east of the English county of Wiltshire.-Location:Great Bedwyn is on the River Dun about south-west of Hungerford and south-east of Marlborough, Wiltshire. The Kennet and Avon Canal and the West of England Main Line railway follow the Dun and pass...

, Wiltshire
Wiltshire is a ceremonial county in South West England. It is landlocked and borders the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. It contains the unitary authority of Swindon and covers...

, where his father held the stewardship of the Manor. He was a kinsman of the Willys Baronets
Willys Baronets
There have been two baronetcies granted to the Willyses of Fen Ditton, both in the Baronetage of England. The Willys Baronetcy, of Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire, was first created in the Baronetage of England on 15 December 1641 for Thomas Willys, son and heir of Richard Willys, of Fen Ditton and...

 of Fen Ditton
Fen Ditton
Fen Ditton is a village on the northeast edge of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire, England. The parish covers an area of Fen Ditton lies on the east bank of the River Cam, on the road from Cambridge to Clayhithe, and close to junction 34 of the A14...

, Cambridgeshire
Cambridgeshire is a county in England, bordering Lincolnshire to the north, Norfolk to the northeast, Suffolk to the east, Essex and Hertfordshire to the south, and Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire to the west...

. He graduated M.A.
Master of Arts (postgraduate)
A Master of Arts from the Latin Magister Artium, is a type of Master's degree awarded by universities in many countries. The M.A. is usually contrasted with the M.S. or M.Sc. degrees...

 from Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church, Oxford
Christ Church or house of Christ, and thus sometimes known as The House), is one of the largest constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England...

 in 1642. In the Civil War years he was a royalist, dispossessed of the family farm at North Hinksey
North Hinksey
North Hinksey , is a small civil parish in county Berkshire, 2 miles west of Oxford, and 5 miles north of of Abingdon,situated on the right bank of the Isis...

 by Parliamentary forces. In the 1640s Willis was one of the royal physicians to Charles I of England
Charles I of England
Charles I was King of England, King of Scotland, and King of Ireland from 27 March 1625 until his execution in 1649. Charles engaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England, attempting to obtain royal revenue whilst Parliament sought to curb his Royal prerogative which Charles...

. Less grandly, once qualified B. Med. in 1646, he began as an active physician by regularly attending the market at Abingdon
Abingdon, Oxfordshire
Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town, with...


He maintained an Anglican position; an Anglican congregation met at his lodgings in the 1650s, including John Fell
John Fell (clergyman)
John Fell was an English churchman and influential academic. He served as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and later concomitantly as Bishop of Oxford.-Education:...

, John Dolben
John Dolben
John Dolben was an English priest and Church of England bishop and archbishop.-Life:He was the son of William Dolben , prebendary of Lincoln and bishop-designate of Gloucester. He was educated at Westminster School under Richard Busby and at Christ Church, Oxford. He fought on the Royalist side at...

, and Richard Allestree
Richard Allestree
Richard Allestree or Allestry was a Royalist churchman and provost of Eton College from 1665.-Life:The son of Robert Allestree, descended from an old Derbyshire family, he was born at Uppington in Shropshire. He was educated at Coventry and later at Christ Church, Oxford, under Richard Busby...

. Fell's father Samuel Fell
Samuel Fell
Samuel Fell D.D. was an English academic and clergyman, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford during the First English Civil War.-Life:...

 had been expelled as Dean of Christ Church, in 1647; Willis married Samuel Fell's daughter Mary, and brother-in-law John Fell would later be his biographer. He employed Robert Hooke
Robert Hooke
Robert Hooke FRS was an English natural philosopher, architect and polymath.His adult life comprised three distinct periods: as a scientific inquirer lacking money; achieving great wealth and standing through his reputation for hard work and scrupulous honesty following the great fire of 1666, but...

 as an assistant, in the period 1656-8; this probably was another Fell family connection, since Samuel Fell knew Hooke's father in Freshwater, Isle of Wight
Freshwater, Isle of Wight
Freshwater is a large village and civil parish at the western end of the Isle of Wight, England. Freshwater Bay is a small cove on the south coast of the Island which also gives its name to the nearby part of Freshwater....


One of several Oxford cliques of those interested in science grew up around Willis and Christ Church. Besides Hooke, others in the group were Nathaniel Hodges
Nathaniel Hodges
Nathaniel Hodges M.D. was an English physician, known for his work during the Great Plague of London and his written account Loimologia of it.-Early life:...

, John Locke
John Locke
John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

, Richard Lower, Henry Stubbe and John Ward
John Ward
John Ward may refer to:*John Ward , English composer*John Ward , English Gresham Professor of Rhetoric*John Ward , Lord Mayor of London...

. (Locke went on to study with Thomas Sydenham
Thomas Sydenham
Thomas Sydenham was an English physician. He was born at Wynford Eagle in Dorset, where his father was a gentleman of property. His brother was Colonel William Sydenham. Thomas fought for the Parliament throughout the English Civil War, and, at its end, resumed his medical studies at Oxford...

, who would become Willis's leading rival, and who both politically and medically held some incompatible views.) In the broader Oxford scene, he was a colleague in the 'Oxford club' of experimentalists with Ralph Bathurst
Ralph Bathurst
Ralph Bathurst was an English theologian and physician.-Early life:He was born in Hothorpe, Northamptonshire in 1620 and educated at King Henry VIII School, Coventry.He graduated with a B.A...

, Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle
Robert Boyle FRS was a 17th century natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor, also noted for his writings in theology. He has been variously described as English, Irish, or Anglo-Irish, his father having come to Ireland from England during the time of the English plantations of...

, William Petty
William Petty
Sir William Petty FRS was an English economist, scientist and philosopher. He first became prominent serving Oliver Cromwell and Commonwealth in Ireland. He developed efficient methods to survey the land that was to be confiscated and given to Cromwell's soldiers...

, John Wilkins
John Wilkins
John Wilkins FRS was an English clergyman, natural philosopher and author, as well as a founder of the Invisible College and one of the founders of the Royal Society, and Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death....

 and Christopher Wren
Christopher Wren
Sir Christopher Wren FRS is one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history.He used to be accorded responsibility for rebuilding 51 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666, including his masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, on Ludgate Hill, completed in 1710...

. Willis was on close terms with Wren's sister Susan Holder, skilled in the healing of wounds.

Willis lived on Merton Street, Oxford, from 1657 to 1667. In 1656 and 1659 he published two significant medical works, De Fermentatione and De Febribus. These were followed by the 1664 volume on the brain, which was a record of collaborative experimental work. From 1660 until his death, he was Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy
Sedleian professor of natural philosophy
The Sedleian professor of natural philosophy is the name of a chair at the Mathematical Institute of the University of Oxford.The Sedleian Chair was founded by Sir William Sedley who, by his will dated October 20, 1618, left the sum of ₤2,000 to the University of Oxford for purchase of lands for...

 at Oxford
University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is a university located in Oxford, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest surviving university in the world and the oldest in the English-speaking world. Although its exact date of foundation is unclear, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096...

. At the time of the formation of the Royal Society of London, he was on the 1660 list of priority candidates, and became a Fellow in 1661. Henry Stubbe became a polemical opponent of the Society, and used his knowledge of Willis's earlier work before 1660 to belittle some of the claims made by its proponents.

Willis later worked as a physician in Westminster
Westminster is an area of central London, within the City of Westminster, England. It lies on the north bank of the River Thames, southwest of the City of London and southwest of Charing Cross...

, London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, this coming about after he treated Gilbert Sheldon
Gilbert Sheldon
Gilbert Sheldon was an English Archbishop of Canterbury.-Early life:He was born in Stanton, Staffordshire in the parish of Ellastone, on 19 July 1598, the youngest son of Roger Sheldon; his father worked for Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. He was educated at Trinity College, Oxford; he...

 in 1666. He had a successful medical practice, in which he applied both his understanding of anatomy and known remedies, attempting to integrate the two; he mixed both iatrochemical and mechanical views. According to Noga Arikha
Among his patients was the philosopher Anne Conway
Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway
Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway was an English philosopher whose work, in the tradition of the Cambridge Platonists, was an influence on Leibniz....

, but although he was consulted, Willis failed to relieve her headaches.

Willis is mentioned in John Aubrey
John Aubrey
John Aubrey FRS, was an English antiquary, natural philosopher and writer. He is perhaps best known as the author of the collection of short biographical pieces usually referred to as Brief Lives...

's Brief Lives
Brief Lives
Brief Lives is a collection of short biographies written by John Aubrey in the last decades of the seventeenth century. Aubrey initially began collecting biographical material to assist the Oxford scholar Anthony Wood, who was working on his own collection of biographies...

; their families became linked generations later through the marriage of Aubrey's distant cousin Sir John Aubrey, 6th Baronet
Sir John Aubrey, 6th Baronet
Sir John Aubrey, 6th Baronet was a British politician. In 1786, he succeeded to his father's baronetcy.Baptised in Boarstall in Buckinghamshire on 2 July 1739, he was the son of Sir Thomas Aubrey, 5th Baronet and Martha Carter. Aubrey was educated at Westminster School and at Christ Church,...

 of Llantrithyd to Martha Catherine Carter, the grand-niece of Sir William Willys, 6th Baronet
Willys Baronets
There have been two baronetcies granted to the Willyses of Fen Ditton, both in the Baronetage of England. The Willys Baronetcy, of Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire, was first created in the Baronetage of England on 15 December 1641 for Thomas Willys, son and heir of Richard Willys, of Fen Ditton and...

 of Fen Ditton
Fen Ditton
Fen Ditton is a village on the northeast edge of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire, England. The parish covers an area of Fen Ditton lies on the east bank of the River Cam, on the road from Cambridge to Clayhithe, and close to junction 34 of the A14...


Research activity

He was a pioneer in research into the anatomy of the brain, nervous system and muscles. The "circle of Willis
Circle of Willis
The Circle of Willis is a circle of arteries that supply blood to the brain...

", a part of the brain
The brain is the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals—only a few primitive invertebrates such as sponges, jellyfish, sea squirts and starfishes do not have one. It is located in the head, usually close to primary sensory apparatus such as vision, hearing,...

, was his discovery.

His anatomy of the brain and nerves, as described in his Cerebri anatome of 1664, is minute and elaborate. This work coined the term neurology
Neurology is a medical specialty dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Specifically, it deals with the diagnosis and treatment of all categories of disease involving the central, peripheral, and autonomic nervous systems, including their coverings, blood vessels, and all effector tissue,...

, and was not the result of his own personal and unaided exertions; he acknowledged his debt to Christopher Wren, who provided drawings, Thomas Millington, and his fellow anatomist Richard Lower. It abounds in new information, and presents an enormous contrast with the vaguer efforts of his predecessors.

In 1667 he published Pathologicae cerebri, et nervosi generis specimen, an important work on the pathology and neurophysiology of the brain. In it he developed a new theory of the cause of epilepsy and other convulsive diseases, and contributed to the development of psychiatry. In 1672 he published the earliest English work on medical psychology, 'Two Discourses concerning The Soul of Brutes, Which is that of the Vital and Sensitive of Man'.

Willis was the first to number the cranial nerves
Cranial nerves
Cranial nerves are nerves that emerge directly from the brain, in contrast to spinal nerves, which emerge from segments of the spinal cord. In humans, there are traditionally twelve pairs of cranial nerves...

 in the order in which they are now usually enumerated by anatomists. His observation of the connexion of the eighth pair with the slender nerve which issues from the beginning of the spinal cord is known to all. He remarked the parallel lines of the mesolobe (corpus callosum)
Corpus callosum
The corpus callosum , also known as the colossal commissure, is a wide, flat bundle of neural fibers beneath the cortex in the eutherian brain at the longitudinal fissure. It connects the left and right cerebral hemispheres and facilitates interhemispheric communication...

, afterwards minutely described by Félix Vicq-d'Azyr
Félix Vicq-d'Azyr
Félix Vicq d'Azyr was a French physician and anatomist, the originator of comparative anatomy and discoverer of the theory of homology in biology.-Biography:Vicq d'Azyr was born in Valognes, Normandy, the son of a physician...

. He seems to have recognized the communication of the convoluted surface of the brain and that between the lateral cavities beneath the fornix
The fornix is a C-shaped bundle of fibers in the brain, and carries signals from the hippocampus to the hypothalamus.-Structure:...

. He described the corpora striata and optic thalami
The thalamus is a midline paired symmetrical structure within the brains of vertebrates, including humans. It is situated between the cerebral cortex and midbrain, both in terms of location and neurological connections...

; the four orbicular eminences, with the bridge, which he first named annular protuberance
The pons is a structure located on the brain stem, named after the Latin word for "bridge" or the 16th-century Italian anatomist and surgeon Costanzo Varolio . It is superior to the medulla oblongata, inferior to the midbrain, and ventral to the cerebellum. In humans and other bipeds this means it...

; and the white mammillary eminence
Mammillary body
The mammillary bodies are a pair of small round bodies, located on the undersurface of the brain, that, as part of the diencephalon form part of the limbic system. They are located at the ends of the anterior arches of the fornix...

s, behind the infundibulum
An infundibulum is a funnel-shaped cavity or organ.* Lungs: The alveolar sacs of the lungs from which the air chambers open are called infundibula...

. In the cerebellum
The cerebellum is a region of the brain that plays an important role in motor control. It may also be involved in some cognitive functions such as attention and language, and in regulating fear and pleasure responses, but its movement-related functions are the most solidly established...

 he remarks the arborescent arrangement of the white and grey matter, and gives a good account of the internal carotids, and the communications which they make with the branches of the basilar artery
Basilar artery
In human anatomy, the basilar artery is one of the arteries that supplies the brain with oxygen-rich blood.The two vertebral arteries and the basilar artery are sometimes together called the vertebrobasilar system, which supplies blood to the posterior part of circle of Willis and anastomoses with...


He coined the term mellitus in diabetes mellitus
Diabetes mellitus
Diabetes mellitus, often simply referred to as diabetes, is a group of metabolic diseases in which a person has high blood sugar, either because the body does not produce enough insulin, or because cells do not respond to the insulin that is produced...

. An old name for the condition is "Willis's disease". He observed what had been known for many centuries elsewhere, that the urine is sweet in patients (glycosuria
Glycosuria or glucosuria is the excretion of glucose into the urine. Ordinarily, urine contains no glucose because the kidneys are able to reclaim all of the filtered glucose back into the bloodstream. Glycosuria is nearly always caused by elevated blood glucose levels, most commonly due to...

). His observations on diabetes formed a chapter of Pharmaceutice rationalis (1674). Further research came from Johann Conrad Brunner
Johann Conrad Brunner
Johann Conrad Brunner was a Swiss anatomist from Diessenhofen. He studied medicine in Schaffhausen, Strasbourg and Paris. At Schaffhausen he studied under Johann Jakob Wepfer , who was also his father-in-law...

, who had met Willis in London.


Willis's work gained currency in France through the writings of Daniel Duncan. The philosopher Richard Cumberland
Richard Cumberland (philosopher)
Richard Cumberland was an English philosopher, and bishop of Peterborough from 1691. In 1672, he published his major work, De legibus naturae , propounding utilitarianism and opposing the egoistic ethics of Thomas Hobbes.Cumberland was a member of the latitudinarian movement, along with his friend...

 quickly applied the findings on brain anatomy to argue a case against Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

's view of the primacy of the passions.


External links

The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.