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Thomas Willis


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Thomas Willis (January 27, 1621 – November 11, 1675) was an English doctor who played an important part in the history of the science of anatomy, neurology and psychiatry. He was a co-founder of the Royal Society (1662).

Born in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, Willis worked as a physician in Westminster, London, and from 1660 until his death was Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford. He was a pioneer in research into the anatomy of the brain, nervous system and muscles. The "circle of Willis", a part of the brain, was his discovery.

His anatomy of the brain and nerves, as described in his Cerebri anatomi of 1664, is so minute and elaborate, and abounds so much in new information, that it presents an enormous contrast with the vague and meagre efforts of his predecessors. This work was not the result of his own personal and unaided exertions; he acknowledged his debt to Sir Christopher Wren and Thomas Millington, and his fellow anatomist Richard Lower. This work coined the term neurology.

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'.[1]

Willis was the first to number the 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, afterwards minutely described by Félix Vicq-d'Azyr. He seems to have recognized the communication of the convoluted surface of the brain and that between the lateral cavities beneath the fornix. He described the corpora striata and optic thalami; the four orbicular eminences, with the bridge, which he first named annular protuberance; and the white mammillary eminences, behind the infundibulum. In the cerebellum 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.


  • Encyclopedia Britannica


  • Carl Zimmer (2004), Soul Made Flesh
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