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Between 1613 and 1619, the Oxford Anatomy School was built in the Bodleian Schools Quadrangle.

17th century engraving of the Oxford Anatomy School in the Bodleian school quadrangle.© Early English Books

Anatomy school in Bodleian schools quadrangle

Thomas Clayton established the Botanic Garden in 1621, the first physic garden in England, one of the oldest in the world, and still open today.

Painting of the Oxford Botanic Garden with Merton College and Chapel in the background© Wellcome Trust

 Oxford Physic Garden

In 1624 Clayton founded the Chair of Tomlins Readership in Anatomy, funded by the merchant Richard Tomlins; the Reader was permitted to demand the body of any person executed within twenty-one miles round Oxford, to prepare, dissect and demonstrate for anatomical teaching. His son succeeded him as Tomlins Reader; however whilst he succeeded elsewhere, for example he was knighted by Charles II, he was not successful academically, having to resign from his position of Tomlins Reader in Anatomy because “he couldn’t endure the sight of a mangled or bloody body”.

Portrait of Richard Tomlins© Wikipedia

Richard Tomlins 

William Harvey, Warden of Merton College and physician to King James I, published the first accurate description of the human circulatory system in "De Mortu Cordis" (The Motion of the Heart) in 1628. Previously it had been thought that blood was able to move around the body through the expansion of the heart and the contraction of the arteries; Harvey demonstrated that the heart was a muscle which propelled blood around the body in a continuous circuit.

Portrait of William HarveyA page of experiments showing the veins in a series of arms© Wellcome Trust

William Harvey and illustrations from Harvey's "de Mortu Cordis"

In 1633, Bartholin’s "Institutions of Anatomy" was introduced as the standard textbook for the teaching of anatomy at Oxford.

Title page of Institutions of Anatomy with an engraving featuring a double faced (male and female) head over a skull© Wellcome Trust

Bartholin's "Institutions of Anatomy"

William Petty, Tomlins Reader of Anatomy, and Thomas Willis, the Sedlian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford, in 1650 revived a domestic servant who was accused of committing infanticide, Anne Greene, who had been hanged in the Oxford Parks, declared dead by the Sherriff, and given over to Petty and Willis for dissection.

Portrait of William PettyPortrait of Thomas Willis© Wellcome Trust

William Petty and Thomas Willis

A news notice "Newes from the Dead or a True and Exact narration of the miraculous deliverance of Anne Green"Engraving of the hanging of Anne Green viewed by a couple in bed exclaiming "Behold God's providence"© Wikipedia

Anne Greene's hanging

There was then a golden period in the second half of the 17th century, when Oxford physicians influenced physiology and anatomy profoundly.

In 1651, Nathanial Highmore discovered the maxillary sinus, the largest air sinus in the body, now known as the antrum of Highmore.

A series of labelled skull images© Wellcome Trust

The antrum of Highmore

Notable early scientific collaboration between Harvey and Highmore was on the embryonic development of the chick.

A chick embryo shown in 7 stages© Wellcome Trust

The embryonic development of the chick

The distinguished group of experimental scientists, who met in Oxford as the Invisible College and later founded the Royal Society in 1660, included eminent physiologists and anatomists. Willis was one of them, and in 1661 he discovered ‘The Circle of Willis’, the network of arteries at the base of the brain. A series of experiments that he conducted with his pupil Richard Lower demonstrated the physiological importance of blood circulation to the brain as well as advanced research into the anatomy of the brain system. For the work Willis carried out at Oxford, he is regarded as the father of clinical neuroscience; indeed, he coined the word ‘neurologia’.

Image of labelled blood vessels in the centre of the brain© Wellcome Trust

The Circle of Willis

Richard Lower (1631-91) was an experimental physiologist and a student of Willis. He was the first scientist to ever perform a blood transfusion and he was the first to observe the difference in arterial and venous blood. When Lower lay dying at the end of his life, a knight asked him for the best advice to preserve health and prolong life. Lower replied, “don’t eat too much”.

Portrait of Richard Lower© Wellcome Trust

Richard Lower

Robert Boyle (1627-91) introduced the present practice of preserving moist specimens in alcohol.

Portrait of Robert Boyle© Wellcome Trust

Robert Boyle 

Robert Hooke, one of Willis’ assistants at Oxford, demonstrated the cell structure of living tissue in his 1665 book Micrographia, becoming the first person to use the world ‘cell’ in a biological sense.

Portrait of Robert Hooke writing with a quill pen© WikipediaAn intricately engraved microscope© Wellcome Trust

Robert Hooke and an engraving from Hooke's "Micrographia"

In 1698, James Keill, an anatomy lecturer at Oxford, published "The Anatomy of the Humane Body abridged", which became the most popular handbook of choice for anatomy students for the next one hundred years. 

Whilst the Anatomy School was situated in the Bodleian Schools Quadrangle, in 1683, Anatomy Lectures moved to the Ashmolean.

Engraving of the Ashmolean Museum© Wellcome Trust

The Ashmolean

In 2021, the Department celebrated the quatercentenary of Thomas Willis's birth - visit this page for a wealth of Willis resources and videos.

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