Thomas Willis


Portrait of Thomas WillisThomas Willis, an English physician, is regarded one of the founders of modern clinical neuroscience. He was a physician in London, and a professor of natural philosophy at Oxford. His book the Cerebri Anatomi, published in 1665, contains a elaborate description of the brain and nerves, more detailed than any work that preceeded him. Willis was the first to number the cranial nerves in the order in which they are now usually enumerated by anatomists. His book was illustrated by Christopher Wren, his brother in law.

Willis departed from his predecessors who subscribed to ventricular theory, arguing instead that the psychological processing of humans are dependent on the other areas of the brain rather than the ventricles. For example, he hypothesized that sensations were processed in the corpus striatum, that the imagination was located in the white matter, and that memories were stored in the cerebral cortex.

Willis made many discoveries from his anatomical studies, including: Baldwin-Gardner-Willis operation; Paracusis of Willis; Willis' circle; Willis' cords; Willis' disease I, Willis' disease II, Willis' nerve and Willis' pancreas. He coined the term neurology and was the first to use the term reflex action to describe an elemental action of the nervous system.

Finally, Willis helped found the Royal Society of London.

Writings about Thomas Willis

Bennett, M. R. & Hacker, P. M. S. (2002). The motor system in neuroscience: A history and analysis of conceptual developments. Progress in Neurobiology, 67, 1-52.

Clarke, E., & O’Malley, C. D. (1968). The human brain and spinal cord: A historical study. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Enersen, Ole (2010). Thomas Willis, retrieved on May 14, 2010

Williams, A. N. (2003). Thomas Willis’s practice of paediatric neurology and neurodisability. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 12, 4, 350-367.