In 17th century Oxford, Thomas Willis was considered the most famous and financially successful physician of his time. Most physicians at the time had a medical degree from either Oxford or Cambridge Universities. This qualification was typically gained after years spent memorising the likes of Aristotle and Galen before studying abroad at Paris, Leiden, Padua, Basel or Montpellier. The start of Willis’s career deviated from this norm; while he started his medical studies in 1642, the English Civil War broke out in the same year, cutting his studies short and fundamentally re-shaping the political and academic environment. Willis joined the royalists and was rewarded for his loyalty with a Bachelor of Medicine after only 6 months of study in 1646. Furthermore, following the Restoration, he was awarded his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1660 and appointed to the Sedleian Chair of Natural Philosophy at Oxford.
According to Professor Zoltán Molnár: “Ironically, Willis’ medical career benefited from the political upheaval, which saved him from the detrimental effects of regurgitating outdated works and freed him to make accurate and original observations in several fields, especially in the study of the nervous system.” As evidenced in Willis’s Oxford casebook, introduced and edited by Kenneth Dewhurst in 1981, Willis explored a vast number of clinical cases with an open mind and searched for rational explanations for diseases.
In a new video interview, Professor Molnár talks to Kevin Talbot, Head of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences and Professor of Motor Neuron Biology, to explore the revelations held in Willis’s medical cases in greater detail. Professor Talbot gives us new insights into Willis’s approach as a doctor and the extent to which his descriptions of the diseases he encountered hold up today.
The image used to illustrate this article shows the title page of Cerebri Anatome (second edition, 1664) shows Willis working as part of a team. This group was comprised of Richard Lower, Thomas Millington, Edmond King and Christopher Wren. These associates were involved in dissections, removal and fixation of brains for study, description, and illustration. Willis acknowledged the help of Lower and Wren in his preface in the Cerebri Anatome. Courtesy of Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University.