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Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to Dr Erica Charters for a History of Medicine perspective on Oxford physician and Father of Neurology Thomas Willis.

17th century painting of a Civil War battle in Oxford depicting a map and fighting scenes, next to an animated headshot of Erica Charters.
Siege of Oxford (1646) painting by Jan de Wyck and Associate Professor Erica Charters

This year marks 400 years since the birth of Thomas Willis, pioneer in research into the anatomy of the brain, nervous system and muscles, as demonstrated through his discovery of the Circle of Willis, and widely credited as the Father of Neurology, even coining the word 'neurologia. He was considered the most famous physician of his time and a fine anatomist celebrated for his dissections of the brain and of the cranial and spinal nerves in 17th century Oxford. 

The middle of the 17th century was a period of huge intellectual ferment at Oxford and fundamentally shaped both religion and science. Thomas Willis’s medical training was interrupted by the Civil War, but he was then able to start his medical practice during the Protectorate and he was promoted to Professor after the Restoration. Probably one of the most famous stories about Willis occurs at the end of the Civil War: the case of Anne Greene, whom Willis, together with William Petty, resuscitated after she was executed by hanging and brought to them for dissection, which is credited for directly helping Willis's medical career to take off.

Erica Charters is an Associate Professor of Global History and the History of Medicine at Oxford who is an expert in the history of war, disease, and bodies, particularly in the British and French empires. Ahead of Willis's 400th birthday, DPAG's Professor Zoltán Molnár asked Erica to explain the historical background and help us imagine what people thought of medicine, science and religion at the time of Willis. Willis was a rather orthodox, even conservative, royalist and religious individual, and yet we now think of him as being a major innovator of neuroanatomy, clinical neurology and neuropathology, someone who rethinks all sorts of approaches and finds explanation within his religious framework.

In a new video interview, Erica gives us a fascinating summary about the influence of the Civil War shaped Willis’s life, group of colleagues, research and his clinical practice. It is very likely that without this historic turmoil Willis would have gone into divine orders and would have been someone much more associated just strictly with religious practice. But, because of the Civil War, he takes up the practice of medicine and surrounds himself with an exceptional group of colleagues and tries to both understand the soul and to understand how the function of the body works and how it relates to anatomy.

Erica Charters in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: A History of Medicine perspective on Thomas Willis from DPAG Digital Media on Vimeo.

See a trailer outlining all the 400th birthday interviews to be released in the weeks to come (with thanks to St John's College).

further information on thomas willis

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

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675) Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Founder of Neurology online exhibition (see under current exhibitions, St John's College)