Dr. Thomas Willis and the Anatomy of the brain in 1664


A portrait of Thomas Willis. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The contents of the Library often amazes me because of what it shows us people have been able to study and read about over the centuries. Amongst the Cathedral Library’s collection are a number of scientific works. Although not a scientist myself, one of these works in particular caught my eye because of the precise and detailed artwork inside. The book is by Dr. Thomas Willis, of Christ Church Oxford. It is called Cerebri Anatome or ‘The anatomy of the brain’ and was published in 1664, not long after the restoration of the monarchy. Willis was Sedleian Professor at Oxford, which was a professorship of Natural Philosophy. The position still exists today.

Professor Willis is famous for his discovery of the ‘circle of Willis’ a loop of arteries at the base of the brain. You can see this in the following engraving:


The circle of Willis. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


Willis dedicated his new book to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the preface Willis thanked Christopher Wren and several other doctors and colleagues. There are twelve illustrations in the book. The most striking are those earlier on.


Cerebri limbus. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


There are three other books by Thomas Willis in the Cathedral Library’s collection, all of which are in Latin. The first is called Pathologiae Cerebri et Nervosi generis specimen. This translates approximately as ‘The study of illnesses of the brain and of the nerves’ and includes information on convulsions and scurvy. It was published at Oxford in 1667. This book contains Willis’ thoughts on epilepsy, various types of spasms, hysteria, and convulsions associated with coughing and asthma.

Willis also wrote Pharmaceutice Rationalis sive diatribe de Medicamentorum operationibus in humano corpore roughly translated as ‘Theoretical Pharmacy or a discussion of medicines and their effect on the human body’. This was published in 1674 and part two of the same work was published in 1675. In these two volumes Willis looked at things such as heart palpitations, diabetes, vomiting and purgation, opiate medicines, a very brief discussion on drinking coffee. In volume two he looked at the respiratory organs, asthma, blood-letting, skins diseases and their remedies, itching, scabies, and more besides.


Cranii humani basin interiorem. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


None of the four books have any obvious provenance information, which might be explained if they were donated by clergymen, lay people, or purchased outright by the library. There are also other medical and scientific texts in the Cathedral Library. If you are interested in the History of Medicine and are visiting Worcester you may wish to look into the city’s excellent medical museums: The George Marshall Medical Museum and the Infirmary Museum. Their joint website is:



David Morrison




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