Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we will assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you will not see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

Professor Zoltán Molnár and St John's College Librarian Dr Petra Hofmann explore the extraordinary collection of Thomas Willis's books and rare letters held by the library 400 years after his birth.

St John's College Library collected volumes of Thomas Willis's books, and Petra Hofmann formal headshot
A sample of St John's College Library collected volumes of Thomas Willis's books, and Dr Petra Hofmann

The publications of pioneering neurologist Thomas Willis demonstrate that he was centuries ahead in the field of "neurology", a term he himself coined. St John's College Library holds eleven volumes of these acclaimed texts, which include copies of all seven books published during his lifetime. 

While St John's holdings of Willis's books are not extraordinary among Oxford and Cambridge college libraries, given early printed editions of Thomas Willis's work still exist in relatively large numbers today, these volumes are now part of an early modern medical collection rivalled only by few Oxbridge colleges.

In contrast to Willis's books, autograph writings of his are believed to be extremely rare. St John's College holds 15, even perhaps 16, autograph letters of Willis, all of which centre around his medical practice and many include recipes for medications. With the earliest letter dated from 1660 and the latest dated letter from 1672, these writings allow us to get to know Willis at a time when his practice was well established at Beam Hall, Merton Street, where he had the largest annual income of any Oxford physician, through to his later practice in St Martin's Lane, London

To get to the heart of our understanding of Willis 400 years after his birth, Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to St John's College Librarian Dr Petra Hofmann, who is responsible for looking after this unrivalled collection of Willis's body of work. In this video interview, Dr Hofmann shares a number of key texts, including the library's rarest Willis books, and some unique insights from the original letters themselves on Willis's approaches as a physician. We are also treated to a discussion between Petra and Willis expert Professor Trevor Hughes, author of "Thomas Willis 1621 - 1675: His Life and Work", giving us an overview of the key messages from Willis's clinical work and research publishing.

Petra Hofmann in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: The Willis Legacy in St John's College Library from DPAG Digital Media on Vimeo.

 

Further details on Willis's publications, including an in-depth account of his letters by date and the full provenance of his books, even the background of the individual donors of Willis's publications, can be found on the St John's College Library online exhibition on Thomas Willis.

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

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)

Thomas Willis 400th anniversary trailer

With thanks to St John's College

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675), Online Exhibition, St John's College

Similar stories

Iain Pears in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: An insight into Willis era Oxford through writing "An Instance of the Fingerpost"

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.

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675) 400th Birthday - Miloš Judaš in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: What we learn from translating the works of Willis

Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to Professor Miloš Judaš for a unique comparison of Thomas Willis's profound discoveries and medical terminology in his original Latin tongue and the first English translations.

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675) 400th Birthday - Kevin Talbot in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: Exploring the medical cases of Thomas Willis

Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to Professor Kevin Talbot about Willis's insights into the patients he encountered and his descriptions of their symptoms that could arguably be used for teaching today.

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675) 400th Birthday - Alastair Compston in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: An insight into the writings of Willis

Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to Professor Emeritus of Neurology Alastair Compston FRS about the deeply influential texts written by the Founder of Neurology Thomas Willis four centuries ago.

Thomas Willis (1621 - 1675) 400th Birthday - Chrystalina Antoniades in conversation with Zoltán Molnár: The Circle of Willis

Professor Zoltán Molnár talks to Associate Professor Chrystalina Antoniades for an in-depth look at the Circle of Willis, the name given to the arterial ring at the base of the brain, in recognition of the man renowned for its original description.