A neuroanatomist and physician in the 17th century, Thomas Willis is known to be the Father of Neuroscience and is responsible for building the foundation which a lot of studies, research and discoveries relating to the brain and the nervous system stemmed from.
Early Life and Education
Thomas Willis was born in his parents’ farm on the 27th of January, 1621 in Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, England. Both of his parents, Thomas and Rachel, were committed royalists. Thomas Willis was the eldest among three sons.
Willis initially attended the School of Edward Sylvester. On March 3, 1967, he got into the University of Oxford’s Christ Church College which he attended for over nine years. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1639, his Master of Arts degree in 1642, and his Bachelor of Medicine in 1646.
Both father and son served during the Civil War because of the family’s undying loyalty to King Charles I. His father did not survive. The King recognized young Thomas’s service, however, which is why he was granted his medical degree seven years earlier.
With his degree, he practiced medicine in a nearby town as he was not allowed to practice in Oxford because of his lack of experience. He went around local markets to offer his service. He also stayed in touch with other scientists and physicians and habitually discussed cases that they handled. His network included the architect and artist Sir Christopher Wren, physician, anatomist and physiologist Richard Lower, physicists Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, and physician and philosopher John Locke.
On April 7, 1657, Thomas Willis married Mary Fell whose identity was surrounded by a lot of controversy. Giving birth to eight children all in all, it was said that only one or two of them survived. Within the same period, both of Thomas’ siblings also died at a young age. Mary Fell Willis died in 1666. All the deaths in his family did not discourage Thomas Willis though, and he continued doing research and practicing medicine.
Before Thomas Willis came into the picture, the concept of neuroanatomy was very vague and details surrounding it were extremely limited. They were based mostly from the knowledge that Berengario, Da Vinci and Vesalius shared, three scientists who were greatly influenced by Galen. Galen believed that the brain’s primary purpose was to purify spirits that were, at that time, blamed for a lot of human diseases. The spirits he believed in were known to be phantom-like and were said to be capable of making their own decisions. They were especially seen as responsible for a lot of mental disorders such as insanity and depression. At that time, the brains that these scientists studied were of poor quality, having no effective means of preserving the organ just yet.
Willis respected those who came before him, although he also acknowledged the inaccuracy of their work. He started working on anatomy and formulating his own hypotheses, a lot of which involved experimental and clinical observations. This time around, a preservation method known as “chiriguia infusoria” had already been developed by Sir Christopher Wren and found to be effective. This method allowed Willis to study the brain in its normal form as opposed to the disintegrated form that his predecessors were used to analyzing.
December 14, 1650 proved to be fateful for Thomas Willis. Anne Green was a 22-year old prisoner of the state. She was convicted for infanticide, the victim of which was her own newborn. After being hanged in Oxford’s Cattle Yard, her body was donated for scientific study to Oxford. The corpse was delivered to Willis’ colleague, William Petty. When the coffin was opened however, Green started gagging. Willis and Petty worked together in trying to revive her, and were successful after trying a few techniques that were less than traditional. This marked Willis’ career as a physician.
Thomas Willis had six books published, one of which was only published after his death. What made its mark in medical history was Cerebri Anatome, where Willis first used the term “neurologie”. In this book, he showed gratitude to both Richard Lower and Christopher Wren for assisting him during dissections and for contributing illustrations.
The Cerebri Anatome was the main reason why the arterial circle found at the base of the human brain is now called the Circle of Willis. Though he was not the first one who discovered and described it, he was the only one who was able to discuss it in great detail, describing each part and vascular pattern in depth. He was also responsible for naming a lot of other parts of the brain and the nervous system. Some terms that he coined aside from neurologie were optic thalamus, vagus nerve, corpus striatum, anterior comissure and internal capsule, among others.
Thomas Willis was chosen as Oxford’s Sedleian Professor for Natural Philosophy in 1660 after an endorsement from Gilbert Sheldon, a strong supporter of his. He then devoted his career to neuroanatomy under the motivation of correcting the flawed studies that his predecessors conducted.
Thomas Willis came across several other brilliant medical and scientific minds during his time. Willis and these notable people were responsible for forming the prestigious Royal Society. He was also seen as responsible for major contributions not only in neurology but to other medical branches like endocrinology, cardiology and gastroenterology as well. He was also acknowledged by John Locke in one of his acclaimed pieces in philosophy because of his contributions to his field. Locke was one of Willis’ loyal followers and would often attend lectures conducted by Willis.
Willis spent the last nine years of his life in London as requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Here, he charged his wealthy patients big amounts to pay for his service while he treated the poor for free.
Thomas Willis died of pleurisy in London in December 11, 1675 and was buried at Westminster Abbey where his bones lie to this day. His discoveries formed the foundations of neurology and the medical field as a whole.