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Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to author and historian Iain Pears to better understand "a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment" in which Thomas Willis lived and worked.

Front cover of An Instance of the Fingerpost with illustrations of a dove, skull and open book, black and white drawing of Richard Lower taking a blood transfusion, and a portrait photo of Iain Pears
An Instance of the Fingerpost cover, Willis's colleague Richard Lower performing a blood transfusion, and Iain Pears

Thomas Willis was a pioneer in research into the anatomy of the brain, nervous system and muscles. He was the first to describe the functional significance of the "Circle of Willis", the first to describe the chronic neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis, and the first to number the cranial nerves in the overall order in which they are now usually enumerated by anatomists, among others discoveries.

At the beginning of our video series analysing and celebrating Founder of Neurology Thomas Willis on the 400th anniversary of his birth, Erica Charters summarised the influence of the Civil War on Willis's life and work. To conclude the series, having learned more about his scientific discoveries and medical practice in Oxford in fine detail, we return to the historical background of his achievements once more.

The Civil War had an enormous impact on ideas about religion, politics and science. Thus, in many ways, Willis's pioneering work can perhaps only be truly understood in the context of Oxford's huge intellectual ferment and scientific revolution, since without it, Willis's medical advances may never have come to pass.

In a final video interview, Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to historian, novelist and journalist Iain Pears, author of historical mystery novel "An Instance of the Fingerpost" set in the 1660s during The Restoration following the Civil War. One of the narrators is Anthony Wood, former neighbour and critic of Thomas Willis. Physician Richard Lower, former student and colleague of Thomas Willis, is a major character. Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle are also featured, who, together with Thomas Willis, became founding members of the Royal Society in 1660.

Pears's research into Willis era Oxford for his intricately plotted and character-rich book affords him a particularly interesting and unique perspective on "a time and place of great intellectual, religious, scientific and political ferment" in which Thomas Willis operated and indeed flourished.

Iain Pears in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: An insight into Willis era Oxford through writing "An Instance of the Fingerpost" from DPAG Digital Media on Vimeo.


Thomas Willis: 400th anniversary lecture by Zoltán Molnár at the NeurotechEU opening

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) 400th Anniversary Lecture, Anatomical Society Meeting 2021 - Zoltán Molnár

Molnár, Zoltán, "Thomas Willis (1621-1675), the Founder of Clinical Neuroscience", Nature Review Neuroscience 5:4 (2004), 329-35

Zoltán Molnár, "On the 400th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Willis", Brain

Prof Alastair Compston - “Dr Thomas Willis’s Works” lecture on 16 June 2011, Le Gros Clark Building, Dept of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford

St John's College Exhibitions and Library Tours (Thomas Willis can be found within the Current Exhibition)