The Nervous System
‘The Anatomy of the Nerves yields more pleasant and profitable Speculations, than the Theory of any parts besides in the animated Body: for from hence the true and genuine Reasons are drawn of very many Actions and Passions that are wont to happen in our Body, which otherwise seem most difficult and unexplicable; and no less from this Fountain the hidden Causes of Diseases and their Symptoms, which commonly are ascribed to the Incantations of Witches, may be found out and clearly laid open’.
Thomas Willis, Dr. Willis’s practice of physick … Translated
by Samuel Pordage (London, 1684), p. 102.
Thomas Willis, Cerebri anatome: cui accessit nervorum descriptio et usu (London, 1664), Tab. IX, facing p. 425: a diagram of nerves and thorax.
The above image is a depiction of the distribution of some cranial and spinal nerves in Thomas Willis’s ground-breaking textbook, Cerebri anatome: cui accessit nervorum descriptio et usus (London, 1664). Willis’s classification of nine cranial nerves, though incomplete, was a vast improvement on previous authors, and continued in use until the late eighteenth century. It was but one among many improvements in cranial anatomy introduced by Willis (1621–75), whose work is possibly one of the most famous anatomical texts of the early modern period. Willis’s examination of the brain proved so popular that there were four Latin editions printed in the year it was published. In it he literally coined the phrase ‘Νευρολογία’, which was translated into the English term ‘Neurologie’, in a 1681 edition by Samuel Pordage (1633–91) and indexed as ‘The doctrine of the Nerves’. Willis has rightly been called ‘the founder of neurology’.
In the words of Arráez-Aybar et al., in an article marking’s the 350th anniversary of its publication, Celebri anatome ‘marked the beginning of modern neurology and laid the foundations for future research in the fields of clinical and comparative anatomy of the nervous system’. Willis was heavily influenced by the experimental philosophy and lucky to be able to use new technologies on offer (the microscope and intravascular injection of substances). Placed as he was in mid-seventeenth century Oxford, he likewise benefited from being a member of the Oxford Experimental Philosophy Club, a precursor to the Royal Society.
Willis emphasised his dedication to experimentation in the first chapter of Cerebri anatome, explaining as he did so the new methodologies at his disposal for the preservation of organs. Injecting pure alcohol into specimens allowed them to be preserved while the use of coloured wax and other substances enabled anatomists to track the pathways of vascular structures. It was a technique brought to eerie perfection by Willis’ contemporary Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), a Dutch anatomist whose works were likewise collected by Worth. As Arráez-Aybar et al, note, one could see in Willis and Lower’s staining techniques a precursor of current angiography/arteriography/venography.
Willis was not the only seventeenth-century anatomist of the nervous system whose work was collected by Worth. He also had a copy of the Observationes anatomicae (Shaffhausen, 1658) of the Swiss pathologist Johann Jakob Wepfer (1620–95); two editions of the Syntagma anatomicum (Frankfurt, 1641; Padua, 1647) of the German anatomist Johann Vesling (1598–1649); the Tabulae anatomicae of the Italian anatomist Giulio Cesare Casseri (fl. 1552–1616), in his edition of the works of the Flemish anatomist Adriaan van de Spiegel (1578–1626), and a Frankfurt 1600 edition of the works of another Italian anatomist, Gabriele Falloppio (1523–62). All but Wepfer, who as Isler notes, was responsible for the introduction of dye injections of the cerebral vascular system during autopsy, had been professors of anatomy at Padua in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Meyer and Hierons relate, all these scholars had been credited with describing what we now call the ‘Circle of Willis’ in the brain even before Willis did.
Isler highlights the influence of the theories of other earlier authors on Willis’ work: Carolus Piso (Charles Lepois (1563–1633)), had produced an important text on migraine in 1618; Jan Baptist van Helmont (1577–1644) was famous for his work on chemical processes; the Epicurean and atomist philosophy of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) had been particular popular in mid-century Oxford. As Isler notes, the advocacy of both Van Helmont and Gassendi of the tripartite soul, a concept going back to Aristotle, ‘justified the comparative anatomy, the animal experiments, and the hypotheses of central-nervous functions, which Willis and his teams used in their brain research’. Worth had copies of the works of all of these authors in his library.
Cerebri Anatome was just the start of Willis’s explorations of neurology. He produced three seminal textbooks in the space of eight years: the Cerebri anatome, which focused on the brain, his Pathologiae Cerebri et Nervosi Generis Specimen (Oxford, 1667), which concentrated on convulsive disorders, and, finally, in 1672 his De Anima Brutorum came to the press, a book which Isler notes was ‘the first coherent textbook of neurophysiology, neuropathology, and neuropsychiatry’. All proved to be bestsellers, being published in numerous editions.
Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.
Arráez-Aybar, Luis-Alfonso et al., ‘Thomas Willis, a pioneer in translational research in anatomy (on the 350th anniversary of Cerebri anatome), ‘ Journal of Anatomy, 226 (2015), 289–300.
Feindel, William, ‘Thomas Willis (1621–1675) – The Founder of Neurology’, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 87, no. 6 (1962), 289–296.
Isler, Hansruedi, ‘The development of neurology and the neurological sciences in the 17th century’, Handbook of Clinical Neurology¸ 95, 3rd series (2010), 91–106.
Martensen, Robert L., ‘Willis, Thomas (1621–75), ODNB, 2004.
Willis, Thomas, Dr. Willis’s practice of physick … Translated by Samuel Pordage (London, 1681 and 1684).
 Arráez-Aybar, Luis-Alfonso et al., ‘Thomas Willis, a pioneer in translational research in anatomy (on the 350th anniversary of Cerebri anatome), ‘ Journal of Anatomy, 226 (2015), 298.
 See Willis, Cerebri anatome (London, 1664), p. 143. Thomas Willis, Dr. Willis’s practice of physick … Translated by Samuel Pordage (London, 1681), index. This translation is not in the Worth Library.
 Feindel, William, ‘Thomas Willis (1621–1675) – The Founder of Neurology’, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 87, no. 6 (1962), 289–296.
 Arráez-Aybar, Luis-Alfonso et al., ‘Thomas Willis, a pioneer in translational research in anatomy’, 289–90.
 Ibid., 290.
 Ibid., 296.
 Isler, Hansruedi, ‘The development of neurology and the neurological sciences in the 17th century’, Handbook of Clinical Neurology¸ 95, 3rd series (2010), 94.
 Meyer, Alfred, and Raymond Hierons, ‘Observations on the history of the ‘Circle of Willis’, Medical History, 6, no. 2 (1962), 119–20.
 Isler, ‘The development of neurology’, 93.
 Ibid., 95.