Thomas Willis’s Cerebri Anatome cue Accessit Nervorum Descriptio et Usus (London: Thomas Roycroft, 1664) improved on existing descriptions of the brain, and was the first to attribute functions to different parts. It was considered the definitive description of the brain for the next two hundred years.
Thomas Willis (1621-1675) was an English physician best known for contributions to the fields of anatomy, neurology and psychiatry. He made major contributions to cardiology, endocrinology (especially the study of diabetes mellitus), and gastroenterology. He received a master’s degree from Christ Church, Oxford in 1642, fought for Charles I in the English Civil War, then returned to his studies, receiving the degree of bachelor of medicine in 1646. He was part of a group of scholars devoted to experimentation in chemistry and fermentation, which included John Locke, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, and others. De Fermentatione, published in 1656, and De Febribus, published in 1659, grew from this collaborative work as well as his medical practice. As a Royalist, Willis was barred from holding office until the Restoration. In 1660, he replaced a Commonwealth supporter as professor of natural philosophy at Oxford, where he explored the anatomy of the brain as a means to determine the nature of the soul. Later that year he became a doctor of medicine. He was one of the early fellows of the Royal Society (1661), and was elected an honorary fellow of the College of Physicians in 1664. In 1666, he moved to London and established a profitable medical practice, whose clientele included the Duke of York (later King James II).
Cerebri Anatome was a collaborative effort with physician Sir Thomas Millington and anatomist Richard Lower, with illustrations by Christopher Wren, combining knowledge received from earlier anatomists with their own experimental and clinical observations. It contains 29 chapters on the anatomy and function of the brain and nervous system, the first of which was devoted to study methods and specimen preparation. The brain was removed from the skull before being sliced from the base upwards, then examined with magnification and drawn by Wren, whose drawings were then sent to a local engraver to be rendered on copper plates for the printer. Experimental techniques included microscopy as an aid to illustration and dye injection to study blood flow in cerebral arteries. Dissection and experimental results were supplemented by case histories. Cerebri Anatome introduced the word “neurology,” and contained the first detailed description of the importance and function of the Circle of Willis, a circle of arteries at the base of the brain. It also introduced names for various parts of the brain that are still used today.
Willis’ other major works include Pathologiae Cerebri et Nervosi Generis Specimen (1667) containing the first descriptions of neurological disorders, including epilepsy and asthma, and De Anima Brutorum Quae Hominis Vitalis ac Sensitiva Est (1672), in which Willis further explores the soul-brain connection through analysis of different nervous systems.
The Health Sciences Library’s copy of Cerebri Anatome is the octavo edition of 1664, bound in vellum with hand-lettered spine and red-sprinkled edges. It was given to the library by Dr. James J. Waring.
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[Emily Epstein, Cataloging Librarian]