Portrait of Sir Thomas Willis

Thomas Willis

Nancy Wilkinson investigates Thomas Willis (1621–1675), a pioneer of research into the brain almost 400 years ago

In the early 17th century, the brain was still an utter mystery. The majority of people at the time, influenced heavily by Galen (an early Greek physician), believed that the brain housed good and bad spirits, which were responsible for things such as human disease. It was also believed that the soul resided within the brain.

Thomas Willis, an English physician, understood that his predecessors’ work was flawed but still held many archaic views about the connection between the brain and the soul.

He believed that studying the brain’s anatomy could “unlock the secret places of Man’s Mind and look into the living and breathing Chapel of the Deity” – that is, understand what he believed God had created (‘Cerebri Anatome’, Thomas Willis’s first major publication).

In 1664 he published his pioneering research into the anatomy of the brain (‘Cerebri Anatome’). It included details that would go on to influence neurology for hundreds of years. The circle of arteries that supply blood to the head are still referred to as the ‘circle of Willis’. In addition, the numbering system he created for the cranial nerves is still used today.

Famous friends

Willis studied at the University of Oxford and was a founding member of the club that was to become the Royal Society of London. He had a group of influential friends, including Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren (the architect who designed St Paul’s Cathedral).

Wren contributed to his research considerably, drawing the diagrams of the brain he used in his publications and discovering a method for preserving brains, allowing Willis access to remarkably well-kept organs compared to other researchers before him.

Autopsies carried out for research were very common at this time, so Willis, a prominent physician, dissected his deceased patients to add to his studies of animal brains. He would look at the shape of the different parts of the organ and assign uses from this.

Kiss of life

Willis had a colourful medical career before he began his research into the brain. One story tells how he brought 22-year-old Anne Green back to life after she was hanged: she had been brought to Willis for her post mortem, but he quickly realised she wasn’t quite dead!

He, with the other physicians present, poured hot water in her mouth to trigger her coughing reflex and tickled her with a feather to bring her round. They were rather unorthodox methods, but they proved successful, and Green was later pardoned of her hangable offence.

From anatomy to disease

In addition to his research on the anatomy of the brain (and saving people’s lives in his spare time), Willis discovered many diseases that were then unknown, and worked extensively on the causes of epilepsy. Before this, people thought epilepsy was caused by demonic spirits that somehow possessed the patient.

Willis was the first person to describe epilepsy chemically, and he discovered two main features of the disorder. First, he realised the seizures began in the brain, rather than in the muscles affected. Second, he was the first to describe the memory loss seen during an epileptic fit. Willis is known as a pioneer of neurology and neuroscience, and as one of the most prominent men in 17th-century medicine. His discoveries on the anatomy of the brain were ground-breaking and shaped the field for the future, even to this day.

Lead image:

A portrait of Sir Thomas Willis, taken from his book ‘Pharmaceutice Rationalis’ publised in 1679.

Wellcome Library/Wellcome Collection CC BY


Questions for discussion

  • Which modern scientists do you think will be thought of in this way in 400 years?
  • Can you imagine a time when most modern scientists believed the soul controlled the brain?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Neuroscience, History
Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development