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Willis, Thomas

1. Dates
Born: Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire, 27 Jan. 1621
Died: London, 11 Nov. 1675
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 54
2. Father
Occupation: Peasant/Small Farmer, Estate Administrator
Also Thomas Willis, the father was a small farmer who became the steward of the manor of Great Bedwyn.
No clear information on financial status. On the one hand there is mention of an estate (no size given) that Willis inherited upon his father's death; on the other hand Willis went to Oxford as a servitor.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford, M.D.
Private School of Edward Sylvester in Oxford.
In 1636 he became a retainer to the family of Dr. Thomas Iles, Canon of Christ Church, and in March 1637 he matriculated in Oxford from Christ Church as servitor (or batteler) to Dr. Iles. Aubrey says that Willis was related to Iles.
Oxford University, Christ Church, 1637; B.A., 1639; M.A., 1642; M.B., 1646, and license.
Created M.D. in 1660. (This degree was obviously by mandate; however, I list the earlier medical degree.)
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
Willis started in Oxford intending to follow a career in the church. When the Civil War made that appear chancy, he turned to medicine. Meanwhile he fought on the royalist side in the war, and later he made his chambers in Oxford available for Anglican services during the Puritan interregnum. He married a daughter and sister of the two Fells, Deans of Christ Church. Later he endowed prayers at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields in the early morning and late evening when working people could attend.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Anatomy, Physiology, Medicine
Subordinate: Iatrochemistry, Pharmacology
In the late 40s and early 50s Willis engaged in chemical experimentation in Oxford. All his life he remained a follower of the Paracelsian school of iatrochemistry, and its teachings (e.g., on fermentation) showed up in his books.
His first book was Diatribae duae medico-philosophicae, 1659 (one on fermentation, the other on fevers).
His great book was Cerebri anatome, 1664, the basic foundational text on the anatomy of the central nervous system. The work, which embraced the concept of circulation of the blood and the corpuscular philosophy, was as much concerned with physiology as with anatomy. In this book the term "reflex action" was first used. He described what is still called the circle of Willis and comprehended its function. Willis's lectures as Sedleian Professor ranged over the whole of physiology. Author also of Pathologiae cerebri et nervosi generis specimen, 1667, a clinical study, and of De anima brutorum, 1672. Willis was well schooled in the comparative anatomy of nervous systems.
Willis attempted to bring anatomy, physiology, and chemistry to bear on clinical findings. His casebooks on various epidemics were filled with acute observations, including the first clinical description of typhus fever. He initiated the English tradition of epidemiology. He identified saccharin diabetes. He was the author of several medical works.
Pharmaceutice rationalis, 1674-5, 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.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Military
Willis served in the royalist army from 1643-6, studying medicine all the while and taking his M.B. degree in 1646.
Practiced medicine at Oxford, 1646-67. After a slow beginning, it became a very prosperous practice. Tax returns show that he was ultimately making 300 per year, the highest income in Oxford.
In Oxford Willis gave private lessons in anatomy, medicine, and chemistry.
Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford, 1660- 75. Willis kept the chair until his death, even though he was in London during the last eight years.
Practised in London, 1667-75, again a lucrative practice. Wood says that no previous physician "got more money yearly than he."
8. Patronage
Types: Academic, Eccesiastic Official
The patronage of Thomas Iles, who enabled Willis to receive a university education, was fundamental to the whole of his career.
As a confirmed royalist, accepted even though he must have taken the Engagement, Willis got his reward with the Restoration. He was created M.D., making him eligible to practise legally in London. To Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon he dedicated Cerebri anatome, 1664, explicitly stating that Sheldon's influence had led to the professorial appointment, and he stated this again in the dedication of De anima brutorum, 1672. However, their relationship took a giant step forward in 1666, when Sheldon had a stroke in Oxford and was deeply impressed by Willis' treatment of it. Sheldon invited Willis to migrate to London, which he did in 1667. Among other things he was of course Sheldon's physician, but it would seem that Sheldon's influence and connections had something to do with that enormous practise.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Pharmacology
See above. Willis had a secret prescription, composed of solutions of iron and sulfur, which he used throughout his career and refused to divulge. With Lower he discovered the medicinal properties of the spring at Astrop, which he helped to made popular.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Medical College
Informal Connections: Had as assistants Richard Lower, Robert Hooke, Edmund King, and John Masters. (It was Willis who recommended Hooke to Boyle.) Cooperation with Ralph Bathurst and John Lydal.
Philosophical club of Oxford (precursor to the Royal Society), 1648-1650s.
Royal Society, 1667. Willis was on the list of potentially interested men compiled at the organizing meeting in 1660. He formally became a member when he moved to London.
Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, 1664. This was a special status contrived during the Restoration to expand the ranks of those licensed to practise legally in London.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 21, 496-7. William Munk, The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London, 2nd ed., 3 vols. (London, 1878), 1, 338-42.
  2. Anthony Wood, Athenae oxonienses (Fasti oxonienses is attached, with separate pagination, to the Athenae), 4 vols. (London, 1813-20), 3, 1048-53. Hansruedi Isler, Thomas Willis 1621-1675: Doctor and Scientist, (New York, 1968).
  3. Audrey Davis, Circulation Physiology and Medical Chemistry in England 1650-1680, (Lawrence, Kansas, 1973).
  4. Kenneth Dewhurst, Thomas Willis as a Physician, William Clark Memorial Library Lecture, (Los Angeles, 1964).
  5. _____, ed., Thomas Willis's Oxford Lectures, (Oxford, 1980). The introduction to this volume is the best source on Willis that I found.
  6. Solomon Diamond, "Introduction" to Willis, Two Discourses Concerning the Soul of Brutes, tr. S. Pordage, (Gainesville, Florida, 1971), pp. v-x.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. T.M. Brown, The Mechanical Philosophy and Animal Oeconomy, Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, 1968, pp. 152-71.
  2. Alfred Meyer and Raymond Hierons, "On Thomas Willis's Concepts of Neurophysiology," Medical History, 9 (1965), 1-15.
  3. Kenneth Dewhurst, "Willis in Oxford: Some New Manuscripts," Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 57 (1961), 682-7.
  4. _____, ed., Willis's Oxford Casebook (1650-52), (Oxford, 1981).
  5. Humphrey Rolleston, "Thomas Willis," Medical Life, 41 (1934), 177-91.
  6. Charles Symonds, "Thomas Willis, F.R.S. (1621-1675)," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 15 (1960), 91-7.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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