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Thomas Willis

Born  1621
Died  1675

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English anatomist and physician, born January 27, 1621, Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire; died November 11, 1675, London.

Biography of Thomas Willis

Thomas Willis was one of the greatest men in 17th century medicine. He first described a number of diseases, and several anatomical parts bear his name. He coined the terms thalamus opticus, nucleus lentiformis, and corpus striatum. He was one of the founders the philosophical "Clubb" that became the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge, but is probably remembered as much for his bringing back to life of a woman who had been hanged and was brought to him for post-mortem Thomas Willis was born in Great Bedwin, Wiltshire, the eldest of three sons of Rachel Howell and Thomas Willis, the steward at the manor at Great Bedwyn. Before his mother’s death in 1631, the family moved to North Hinksey, Berkshire, where the mother had property. This was only a mile and a half from Oxford, where Willis was schooled with Edward Sylvester, who numbered John Wilkins among his former pupils. He matriculated in the university from Christ Church on March 3, 1637, and worked as servitor to one of the cathedral canons while proceeding B.A. on June 19, 1639; and M.A., June 18, 1642.

In late 1667 Willis moved to London at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon. The practice he established this year became the most fashionable and profitable in his time, and he was called upon to treat members of the royal family. It is assumed that Sheldon’s influence and connections had something to do with his enormous practice.During his first year in London Willis described no less than six diseases hitherto unknown to the medical science. In 1667 he followed up his work on the anatomy of the brain, publishing Pathologicae cerebri, et nervosi generis specimen, an important work on the pathology and neurophysiology of the brain. In it he develops a new theory of the cause of epilepsy and other convulsive diseases, and he makes a number of contributions to psychiatry.

In 1672 Willis published the earliest English work on medical psychology. In it Willis describes the phenomenon now known as paracusis Williisii, based on his observation of a deaf woman who could hear only when a drum was beating. This is a typical example of Willis's ability to make application of isolated, but important facts. In this book he gave first clinical description of myasthenia gravis, in “a woman who temporarily lost her power of speech and became ‘mute as a fish’” According to Willis, the hysterical, the melancholy, the hypochondriacal, all owe their conditions to differences in the nerves, more or less subtle capacities to transmit the "sensitive soul" via solid neural conductors and animal spirits.

Willis considered asthma a nervous complaint. He described epidemic typhus and typhoid in 1659, and described whooping cough, meningitis, narcolepsy and general paralysis of the insane. He recognised that hysteria was not a disease of the uterus but was cerebral in origin. He also described cardio spasm and its successful management in a patient by passing a whalebone rod with a sponge on the end to push the food down after meals. He first described and named puerperal fever.

Another remarkable work of Willis was Pharmaceutice rationalis, published in Oxford in 1674. One of the great books of seventeenth century English medicine, this is the first scientific work on pharmacology as well as a valuable epitome of the materia medica of the time. Willis describes the sweetish flavour of urine in diabetes mellitus, differentiating between it and diabetes insipidus. He gives a clear account of whooping cough and the first satisfactory figures on the structure of the lungs.

The resurrection of Anne Green
In an article on Thomas Willis I found this part on a rather bizarre, but altogether, fortunate event: Anne Green was a 22 year old woman who had been employed as a housemaid by Sir Thomas Read in Oxfordshire. She was probably seduced by his grandson, Mr Geoffrey Read, who turned her down when she became pregnant. The unlucky girl tried to hide her pregnancy, and, when giving birth to a premature child, she hid the body. The dead boy was found, however, and Anne Green was accused of the murder of her own child. She was sentenced to die by the usual method: hanging.

The execution took place on the public place of execution, Cattle Yard in Oxford, on December 14, 1650. First a hymn was sung, where after the officiant expressed that there were extenuating circumstances in the terrible crime, and that the Read family had not taken good care of the girl.

Thereafter the execution was carried out as usual. Anne Green had to climb the ladder up to the gallows, where the rope was laid around her neck. Then she was pushed off the ladder. While the body was hanging there people came forward to pinch her breasts, or amuse themselves by hanging on the legs of the hanged. ”First they lifted the body up, and then hanged themselves to it with all its weight, causing a forceful downward jerk so that the poor hanged person should die as quickly as possible and without unnecessary long pain.” The attending court usher now feared that the rope might break, and urged the spectators to leave the body alone. After about half an hour the hanged was cut down and the body placed in a coffin, which was taken home to Dr. William Petty, who gave anatomy lectures at the university.

When doctors William Petty, Thomas Willis, Ralph Bathurst (1620-1692) and others assembled for the dissection and opened the coffin, they noticed that the ”corpse” took a breathe and they heard a raling sound in the throat of the ”diseased.” The immediately abandoned all thoughts about dissecting a corpse and hastily commenced attempts to bring the woman back to life.

The body was raised to an upright position in the coffin, where after msrs. doctors bound her jaws open and poured hot drinks into the patient’s mouth. This induced a coughing reflex, which encouraged them to continue the resuscitation energetically, rubbing and massaging the patient’s fingers, hands, arms, and feet. A quarter of an hour later they were able to pour more hot drink into her, and when they tickled her on the neck with a feather, she opened her eyes for a moment.

The treatment continued with bloodletting as well as compression bandaging of arms and legs with the purpose of making as much blood as possible circulate in the brain. They also used warm, hot bandages over her chest and gave hot lavamang in order to increase body temperature. Eventually the patient was put to bed beside a woman whose purpose it was to keep her warm.

Twelve hours after the execution Anne Green was able to say a few words, and after one day she could answer adequately when spoken to. After two days it was recorded that her memory had come back, except for an amnesia when it came to the execution itself and the resuscitation. After four days she was able to eat solid food, and after a month she was fully restituted.

In the resuscitation protocol detailed observations on the patient’s pulse, respiration rate and type, blood pressure, and autonomous functions were recorded. It was noted that her face at first was swollen, strongly red-coloured and showed profuse sweating. The patient’s hearing, seeing, and perception abilities where controlled time and again, and even in the beginning, when she did not respond to things said to her, Petty and Willis try to follow their instructions to raise an arm, clench her fist, open the eyes or nod her head.

The patient’s memory was recorded thoroughly during the whole course and it was concluded that the memory seems to behave like a ”clock which has had the weight removed and later hanged on again, whereby the clock starts.” Two weeks after the execution the patient’s memory had improved and she was faintly able to remember a man clad in felt, quite certainly the executioner in his gray cloak.

After Anne Green’s unique rescue the court usher attending the execution turned to the prison director of Oxford, asking that Anne Green be reprieved. This was done.

After being set free, Anne Green moved to friends in the countryside – bringing along with her the coffin in which she had been laid a ”corpse”. She later married, had three children and lived for fifteen years after her famous execution.

Thus, however, medicine lost a corpse badly needed. By a decree of 1549 Edward VI of England demanded that all students of medicine at the university of Oxford where to have taken part in at least four dissections, of which two by their own hand, in order that the anatomy course could be recognized. Thus dissection activity increased, causing a chronic shortage of bodies. Almost another hundred years were to pass before the problem found a solution through a particular paragraph of the Magna Charta (1636), stating that the right to the remnants of all persons executed within a 21 mile radius from Oxford fell to the anatomical institute of the city’s university.

It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that hanging in England was done with a fall to break the neck. The torment, as described for Anne Green, was the normal, and not much more than a hundred years have passed since children under the age of ten were hanged as described here: some adults hanged on to the children so that they would die quicker. Britannia ruled the waves.

Life of Willis
Willis’ personal life was touched with tragedy; six of his eight children died before adolescence; his first wife, the sister of John Fell, dean of Christ Church, died in 1670; and both of his brothers predeceased

Willis’ successes brought upon him the animosity and envy of many of his colleagues, having to suffer great harassments, something that was probably a cause for his premature death of pleurisy in London in 1675, at the age of 54. He was buried in the north transept of Westminster Abbey. He was survived by his second wife.


For in as much as the Carotidick Arteries do communicate between themselves in various places, and are mutually ingrafted; from thence a double benefit results, though of a contrary effect: because by this one and the same means care is taken, both lest the brain should be defrauded of its due watring of the blood, and also lest it should be overwhelmed by the too impetuous flowing of the swelling stream or torrent. As to the first, lest that should happen, one of the Carotides perhaps being obstructed, the other might supply the provision og both; then, lest the blood rushing with too full a torrent should drown the chanels and little Ponds of the brain, the flood is chastised or hindred by an opposite Emissary, as were a Floodgate, and so is commanded to return its flood, and haste backward by the same ways, and to run back with an ebbing Tide.
Practice of Physick, “Of the Anatomy of the Brain,” Chapter IV.

Melancholy. . . is a complicated Distemper of the Brain and Heart: For as Melancholick people talk idly, it proceeds from the vice or fault of the Brain, and the inordination of the Animal Spirits dwelling in it; but as they become very sad and fearful, this is deservedly attributed to the Passion of the Heart. . . . But we cannot here yield to what some Physicians affirm, that Melancholy doth arise from a Melancholick humour. . . . Melancholy being a long time protracted, passes oftentimes into Stupidity, or Foolishness, and sometimes also into Madness. . . .
Two Discourses concerning The Soul of Brutes,
Which is that of the Vital and Sensitive of Man, pp. 188, 192-193.


  • Diatribæ duæ medico-philosophicæ, quarum prior agit de fermentatione sive de motu intestino particularum in quovis corpore, altera de febribus sive de motuearundum in sanguine animalum; his accessit dissertatio epistolica de urinis.
    Londini, T. Roycroft, 1659, 1660; 2nd edition, with additions, 1662, 1665, 1677; Amsterdam, 1663, 1665, 1669; Leiden, 1680.
    English translation in his Practice of physick, 1684, Treatise II: 83-98, 1111-1118.
    The part Dissertatio epistolica de urinis was written to theologist, poet, and physician Ralph Bathurst (1620-1704). It contains the earliest suggestion that fermentation is an intestinal or internal motion of particles; the analogy between putrefaction and fermentation is also noted. In De febribus, cap. X, XIV, is the first description of epidemic typhoid.
  • Cerebri anatome: cui accessit nervorum descriptio et usus.
    Londini, typ. J. Flesher, imp. J. Martyn & J. Allestry, 1664, 1670; Amsterdam 1664, 1665/1666, 1667, 1676, 1683. English translation by S. Pordage, 1681.
    The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves. Tercentary edition. Edited by W. Feindel; 2 volumes. Montreal, 1965. Reprint of the English translation with a complete annotated bibliography of the work.
    The work that coined the term neurology. This is one of the most desirable collectors’ items in medical neurology and one of the classic publications of English medicine. The illustrations are by Sir Christopher Wren, who was later to became England’s leading architect. The most complete and accurate account of the nervous system which had hitherto appeared. Willis’ classification of the cerebral nerves held the field until the time of Samuel Thomas Soemmering (1755-1830).
  • Pathologiae cerebri, et nervosi generis specimen in quo agitur de morbis convulsivis et de scorbuto.
    338 pages. 4 pl. With portrait. Amsterdam (Amstelodami), apud D. Elzevirium,1668, 1670; Leiden, 1671; Geneva, 1676; London, 1678, 1681; Lyon, 1681; Dutch translation, Middelburg, 1677; Amsterdam 1681. English translation by Samuel Pordage:
  • An Essay on the Pathology of the Brain and Nervous Stock; in Which Convulsive Diseases are Treated of. London, T. Dring, 1681.
  • Affectionum quæ dicuntur hystericæ et hypochondriacæ pathologia spasmodica vindicata. Accesserunt exercitationes medico-physicae duae de sanguinis accensione et de motu musculari. London, Jacob Allestry, 1670.
    Leiden, 1671:
  • Affectionum quæ dicuntur hystericæ et hypochondriacæ pathologia spasmodica vindicata, contra responsionem epistolarem Nathanael. Highmori. Cui accesserunt exercitationes medico-physicae duæ. 1. de sanguinis accensione; 2, De motu musculari.
    Lugd. Bat., Driehuysen et Lopez, 1671.
    In this treatise on hysteria and hypochondria, Willis showed that hysteria was a nervous disease and not a uterine disorder as had been traditionally believed. He compared hysteria in women to hypochondria in men.
  • De anima brutorum quæ hominis vitalis ac sensitiva est, excertitationes duæ; prior physiologica ejusdem naturam, partes, potentias et affectiones tradit; altera pathologica morbos qui ipsam, et sedem ejus primarium, nempe ceerebrum et nervosum genus atticiunt, explicat, eorumque therapeias instituit.
    Oxford, two editions 1672 (quarto and octavo); London, R. Davis, 1672; Amsterdam, 1672, 1674; Lyon, 1676.
    English translation by Samuel Pordage, London, 1683:
  • Two Discourses concerning The Soul of Brutes, Which is that of the Vital and Sensitive of Man.
  • Pharmaceutice rationali, sive diatriba de medicamentorum operationibus in humano corpore
    2 volumes. Oxford, 1674 and 1675. Haag, 1674, 1675. II. Oxford, 1675, 1678; Haag, 1677; Venice, 1708, 1720; Geneva, 1695; London, 1684; English translation, London, 1683.
    According to some authors, this work was first published in London, Not Oxford.
    Pharmaceutice rationalis, with case histories, post mortems, and therapies, attempted to establish pharmacology as a science based on anatomy, morbid anatomy, and chemical experimentation. The book is not considered a success. However, Willis contributed to the acceptance of quinine and reintroduced the colchicine therapy of gout, and he invented several medicines.
  • Opera medica & Physica.
    2 volumes. Genevae, apud Samuelem de Tournes, 1676-1680, 1695; Lyon, 1676, 1681; Amsterdam, 1682; Venice, 1708, 1720.
  • Opera omnia. Geneva, 1676.
    His collected works were published immediately after his death and reprinted several times in the succeeding decades.
    Included in Willis's Opera is William Croone's (1633-1684) De ratione motus musculorum (1664), one of the earliest works on muscular action. Croone, a graduate of Cambridge and one of the original founders of the Royal Society, had a large and prosperous practice, and, in accordance with his wishes, his wife endowed after his death the Croonian Lectures at the Royal College of Physicians, London. In the treatise he expresses his theory that the body of the muscle is responsible for its contractile power which is brought about by a nourishing fluid from the arterial system in combination with another fluid of nervous origin.
  • Practice of Physick.
    London, T. dring, C. Harper, and J. Leigh, 1684.
    Contains translations of all his works except Affectionum quae dicuntur hysteriacae, 1671. His description of the intercostal and spinal nerves is to be found in Treatise III, pp. 128-158.
  • A Plain and Easie Method for Preserving [by God’s Blessing] those that are WELL from the Infection of the PLAGUE, AND For Curing such as are infected with it. Written in the year 1666. By Tho. Willis, late Sidney Professor in Oxford, and a Member of the Royal Society and College of Physicians in London. Never before printed.
    LONDON, Printed for W. Crook, at the Green-Dragon, without Temple-Bar. 1691.
    74 pages.

  • Hansruedi Isler:
    Thomas Willis, 1621-1675: Doctor and Scientist.
    New York, 1968.
  • Audrey B. Davis:
    Circulation Physiology and Medical Chemistry in England 1650-1680.
    Lawrence, Kansas, 1974. Sheds much light on Willis’ chemical ideas.
  • Alfred Meyer and Raymond Hierons:
    On Thomas Willis’s Concepts of Neurophysiology. On Anne Green:
  • Newes from the Dead or A True and Exact Narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Green. Written by a Scholler in Oxford: Printed by Leonard Lichfield for Tho Robinson, 1651.
  • Newes from the Dead or A True and Exact Narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Green, who being executed at Oxford afterwards revived.
    Written by a Scholler in Oxford. R. Watkins, Oxford 1651.
  • J. T. Hughes:
    Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century. The British Medical Journal, 1982, 285: 1792-1793.
  • Bengt Ljunggren:
    Thomas Wiilis och hjärnans blodförsörjning. Var det Anne Greens död och återupplivning som sporrade hans cirkulationsstudier?
    Läkartidningen, Stockholm, 1984, 11: 13-14.
    In the series: Mannen bakom syndromet [The Man Behind the Syndrome]. Medical History, 1965; 9: 1-15, 142-155. Contains an extensive bibliography.
We thank Richard Siderits for information submitted.

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