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Francis Glisson

Born  1597
Died  1677

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British physician, anatomist, physiologist, and pathologist, born 1597, Rampisham, Dorsetshire?; died October 14, 1677, London.

Biography of Francis Glisson

Francis Glisson was one of the most important representatives of medicine in the seventeenth century. He was the second son of William Glisson, of Rampisham, county of Dorset. His father was born in Bristol and was designated as «gentleman» in the son’s matriculation at Caius college, Cambridge, in 1617. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of John Hancock of Kingsweston, Somerset. Exactly when the family moved to Rampisham is uncertain, as is the place of his birth.

Glisson graduated B.A. at Cambridge in 1620-1621. He became M.A. and gained a junior fellowship in 1624, and was incorporated at Oxford on the last degree 25th October, 1627. At Cambridge he was a Greek lecturer in 1625-1626, dean in 1629, and senior fellow 1629-1634. In 1634 he also completed his medical studies with the M.D. degree and was admitted a Candidate of the Royal College of Physicians on September 15, 1634, and a Fellow on September 30, 1635. Late in life, he was the College's councillor from 1666 on, its president from 1667 to 1669, and from 1670 again Consilarius to his death. In 1669 he donated £ 100 to the College's new building.

Regius Professor
In 1636 Glisson succeeded Ralph Winterton (1600-1636) as Regius professor of physic at Cambridge, and continued to hold that office to the time of his death in 1677. In 1639 he was chosen anatomy reader by the College, and acquired much reputation by his lectures de moribus partium. He was Gulstonian lecturer in 1640. Teaching anatomy at the time also comprised the pathologic and normal, as well as the comparative anatomy of the human body. Thomas Wharton (1614-1673), in his Adenographia, mentions «his most faithful friend,» Glisson, as his helper in dissecting.

For some years after Glisson's appointment to the Regius professorship, he resided at Cambridge; but during the civil wars retired to Colchester, where he practised with great reputation. He was in that town at its memorable siege by the Parliamentary forces in 1648, and was the person selected on more than one occasion to solicit favourable terms from Lord Fairfax (1612-1671). As a consequence of the impoverisation of the population moved to London.

The Royal Society
Glisson belonged to the small but illustrious body who instituted a weekly meeting in London for the purpose of promoting inquiries into natural and experimental philosophy – the «Invisible College» – which, after the restoration in 1660 became the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge and received a royal charter in 1662. Glisson was elected March 4, 1660/1661?

The English disease
Around 1645 a group of the fellows of the College began to exchange notes on rickets, thought to have been recently spread in England. They were Drs. Glisson, Sheaf, George Bate (1608-1669), Ahasuerus Regemorter, Wright, Pagett, Jonathan Goddard (1617-1674), and Trench.

Bate, and Regemorter were assigned to publish a book on the subject. The investigation of the essential nature of the disease fell to Glisson, who impressed his co-workers so much that they entrusted him with drafting the whole book, into which their own observations and possibly those of authors like Daniel Whistler (1619-1684) were incorporated. Tractatus de rachitide sive morbo puerilii appeared in 1650 with Glisson as the author, Bate and Regemorter as his associates, and with five, additional contributors.

In Tractatus de rachitide sive morbo puerilii as well as his other publications, Glisson incorporated empirical findings into a scholastic framework of reasoning, trying to lay a broad basis for argumentation while discussing any problem encountered on the way. Thus this work dwells on such subjects as regulation of the circulation of the blood (which was assumed as a matter of course), mechanisms of nervous function, and the nature of hereditary disease. An English translation of the book appeared in 1651, testifying to the interest it aroused.

Tractatus de rachitide sive morbo puerilii is a remarkable treatise on rickets. However, the physician Arnold de Boot (1600?-1653), a Frisian physician who practised for several years in Ireland, had published a quite commendable work on the subject in 1649. In chapter 22 Glisson gave a clear description of infantile scurvy (Möller-Barlow disease), which he had observed among infants with rickets, and showed that, though it often accompanied rickets, it was a separate disease entirely. After that, infantile scurvy was not reported for another 200 years. Julius Otto Ludwig Möller (1819-1887) described it in 1859, Walter Butler Cheadle (1836-1910) in 1872 and 1878, and Sir Thomas Barlow (1845-1945) in 1883.

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (IAP 1976; rep. edn. 1984), cites Gerard and Arnold de Boot [latinised as Bootius], Philosophia Naturalis Reformata id est Philosophiae Aristotelicae Accurata Examinato ac Solida Confutatio et Novae Introductio (A Reformed Natural Philosophy &c.), i.e., An Accurate Examination and Substantial Refutation of Aristotelian Philosophy and an Introduction to a New One.] (Dublin 1641).

The name “ rickets” is from the Old English wrickken, to twist; the more technical medical term, rachitis, which comes from Greek Mxts, the spine, was suggested by Francis Glisson in 1650.

By the end of the 19th century, infantile scurvy was readily recognized and frequently observed in Britain and the US. The increased incidence of infantile scurvy was attributed to the consumption of heated milk and proprietary foods deficient in vitamin C. It was not until 1918, that Edward Mellanby (1884-1955), experimenting with dogs, showed that diet was the determining factor, and that cod liver oil could prevent rickets.

The liver
Glisson concentrated on the liver as his chief field of interest. In his book Anatomia hepatis (1654) he gave the first description of the capsule of the liver and describes its blood supply, so much more accurate than any which had been published. Thenceforward his name has been inseparably connected with the capsule, under the designation "Glisson's capsule." Here too, is the description of the sphincter of the bile duct. In its time, the Anatomia hepatis was the most important treatise thus far on the physiology of the digestive system. In this work he also describes splints and orthopaedic measures for the management of bony deformities.

His "Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis" (1677), an important work on the stomach and intestines, contains Glisson's original concept of "irritability" not only as the prime cause of muscular contraction but as a property of all human tissues. The view was materialistic and mechanistic and, like all of Glisson's hypotheses, shows an attempt by an able thinker to explain important physiological phenomena. By immersing his arm in water he demonstrated that muscle does not increase in volume during contraction.

In his teaching on irritability Glisson was a forerunner of Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777), who proved experimentally that Glisson erred in demonstrating that only muscle fibres can be brought to movement through irritation.

A man of colour
Francis Glisson is also credited with the creation of a colour-solid which became of fundamental importance to all colour systems of the New Age. Glisson operated with the primary colours red, yellow and blue, and his grey scale was composed of 23 steps between black and white, which he constructed using lead-white and black ink.

Francis Glisson died on October 14, 1677, aged 81, and was buried in St Bride's church, Fleet Street.


  • De rachitide, sive morbo puerili, qui vulgo The Rickets dicitur, Tractatus opera primo ac potissimum Francisi Glissonii . . . adscitis in operis societatem Georgio Bate et Ahasvero Regemortero. Londini, typ. G. Du-gardi, 1650. 416 pages.
    Although anticipated by Whistler and others in the description of infantile rickets, Glisson's account was the fullest that had till then appeared. He was first (Chapter 22) to describe infantile scurvy. Glisson's book on rickets was one of the earliest instances of collaborative medical research in England, combining the observations of Glisson and seven other contributors. George Bate and Ahasuerus Regemorter are credited as co-authors. This monograph on the biomechanics of deformities included an early study of the pathologic anatomy of scoliosis.
    English translation:
    A Treatise of the Rickets, Being a Diseas Common To Children. London 1651.
  • Anatomia hepatis, cui praemittuntur quaedam ad rem anatomicam universe spectantia et ad calcem operis subjiciuntur nonnulla de lymphae ductibus nuper repertis.
    Londini, typ. Du-Gardianis, 1654.
    Amsterdam, apud Joannem Janssonium a Waesberge, 1665.
    First accurate description of the capsule of the liver (Glisson's capsule) and its blood supply. He also described the sphincter of the bile duct (Glisson's sphincter, the sphincter of Oddi). This is the first book printed in England which gives a detailed account of a single organ based on original research.
  • Tractatus de Natura Substantiae energetica, seu de vita naturæ, ejusque tribus primis facultatibus, perceptivâ, appetitivâet Motivâ, naturalibus.
    London, E. Flesher, 1672.
    Dedicated to Anthony Ashley Cooper (1621 1683), Earl of Shaftesbury. Glisson was physician to the earl and his family for several years and acknowledges his gratitude for the Earl's patronage and assistance in several difficulties he had met with.
  • Tractatus de ventriculo et intestinis. Cui praemittitur alius, De partibus continentibus in genere; & in specie, de iis abdominis.
    Londini, Typis E.F. Prostat venalis apud H. Brome, 1677.
    Amstelodamii, Apud Jacobum Juniorem, 1677.
    Besides Glisson's doctrine of irritability, this book also contains a treatise on skin, hair, nails, fat, abdominal muscles, peritoneum, and omentum. Here Glisson discusses the theory of digestion and even includes an appendix on fermentation. Here are also theories of embryogenesis in which the relationship to Harvey is particularly interesting.
  • Opera medico-anatomica, in unum corpus collecta.
    3 volumes in a single publication. Leiden 1691.
    Does not contain the Tractatus de natura substantia energetica.
  • Guido Giglioni:
    Francis Glisson, Physician and Philosopher. An Investigation of the Life of Nature in 17th Century England.
    Doctoral dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, Spring, 2002.

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