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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.


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)